A fresh round of motions were filed this week in the ongoing lawsuit between Friday the 13th screenwriter Victor Miller and the series’ current rights holders, leaving slasher fans wondering: Will Jason Voorhees survive long enough to manifest into the franchise’s latest film?
Miller drew first blood earlier this year by sending notices of copyright termination to The Manny Company and Horror Inc., demanding that the rights to the series be returned to him effective July of 2018. In doing so, Miller sought to take advantage of the 1976 Copyright Act’s termination provision, which strengthens an author’s ability to renegotiate contracts that seem unfair in retrospect by allowing them to revoke any previously-granted rights to their creations after a period of 35 years. By creating this provision, Congress intended to give an inalienable second chance to authors who were originally in a poor bargaining position after the commercial value of their work had been demonstrated. Because* Friday the 13th* was released in 1980, two years after the Copyright Act of 1976 became effective, the termination right could potentially apply to Miller’s claim.
However, works that were “made for hire” are explicitly excluded from the termination right that Miller seeks to invoke, and both Horror Inc. and The Manny Company will undoubtedly fight hard to establish that Miller’s contribution to Friday the 13th falls into this category. Under the Copyright Act, a work is considered “for hire” if it has been prepared by an employee within the scope of their employment, or if the work was specifically ordered or commissioned as a contribution to a collective work, for example as a part of a motion picture, so long as such a relationship has been agreed to in writing. The most important factors that a court will consider in assessing whether a work was made “for hire” are the degree of control by the employer over the work and the employee, and the conduct of the employer. Where an employer determines how, where, when, and in what manner the work is done, then a court will be more likely to consider the relationship “for hire.” Similarly, if the employer provides the employee with benefits, a salary, or tax withholding, then the work is more likely to be considered for hire.
On August 24, 2016, Horror Inc. and The Manny Company took the first steps in establishing their defense against Miller’s attempted termination by filing a complaint in Connecticut district court. In this initial complaint, Horror Inc. and The Manny Company alleged that Miller’s work on Friday the 13th had been heavily “guided” and “directly supervised,” and that Miller had entered into an employment agreement with The Manny Company, causing Miller’s work on the film to be a non-terminable work for hire. Miller was also alleged in this complaint to have breached his employment contract and slandered the current rights holders. On Monday, October 17, 2016, in response to these claims, Miller filed a motion to dismiss. In Miller’s motion, he sentimentally noted that Sean Cunningham, The Manny Company general partner who “suggested that they work together on a film,” had been his “best friend.” Miller then moved on to more legally-based arguments, stating that he had been a “freelance” author who received sole writing credit for the screenplay, provided his own materials, worked offsite, and had discretion over his own schedule, among other things. Miller also disputed the claims of breach of contract and slander that had been alleged against him.
As comic book history has shown, lawsuits based on an author’s right of termination tend to be very fact-specific, and as a result courts have had a wide range of reactions to such claims, meaning the fate of Jason Voorhees is far from decided.
Every monster has an origin story, and it remains to be seen how this murderous, masked camper will manage to escape his.
* Jason is scared to death of Ma’idah Lashani who authored this article. *