Interactive Rights Give Studios Clause

The fight to possess the interactive re-use rights in film and television material has studios beginning to do a little contract tinkering.

Two contracts recently signed by Walt Disney’s Television and Telecommunications and Motion Picture Group point to the studio adding clauses pertaining to interactivity into its contracts. Not surprisingly, other studios are starting to look at their own contracts.

“We’re doing an overall reevaluation of our contracts for various reasons, but one area we’re looking at is interactivity,” said Mary Ledding, senior veepee for legal affairs at Universal.

The right to re-use creative material in an interactive form is the latest hot potato at the bargaining table. The studios have historically taken a position that once they buy a property, they own everything in terms of spin-off. Even so, they are still examining their contracts to make sure their stance is clear.

Yet that does not stop the battle. The Writers Guild of America, in drafting a new contract, has become the first Hollywood guild to address who owns the interactive rights.

Clear TV reception

“In television, the contract makes it clear that the writer owns the interactive rights where he has a separation of rights,” said Joel Block, who handles interactive matters for the WGA West.

That would usually apply to writers who have an original teleplay with original characters.

In works done prior to this contract, writers still can get a royalty if something is repurposed into an interactive medium.

“There’s always been disagreement to the extent that the pre-existing contract covered re-use in an interactive medium,” Block said. “And there are some cases depending on re-use of early material.”

One pending case that is separated from Hollywood but may affect such dealings is Tasini vs. the New York Times, filed in the U.S. seventh district Court in December 1993.

Precendent to be set?

The case involves a group of freelance writers who sued the paper over the re-use of their stories.

“The writers have taken the position that they only granted one-time limited rights of publication. They allege that any subsequent reproduction is a violation of their original copyright,” said David Goldberg, a New York attorney specializing in copyright law. “The publishers have taken the position that their contract was something broader than that.”

While the fight centers on the publishing world, it nonetheless addresses the issue of rights granted by contracts that do not specifically address other arenas.

One of the problems is that as these battles are fought in courts around the country, the verdicts tend to dramatically differ. Some courts promote the theory that all rights are inclusive in a contract unless they are specifically excluded; others hold that everything is excluded unless they are specifically included.

“Nothing is really precedent setting, that’s why you have quite a bit of litigation in this area,” Goldberg said.

New-found smarts

In Hollywood, writers and actors and directors are just becoming savvy to what rights they can hold on to. The Screen Actors Guild, now deep in contract negotiations, is addressing the re-use of actors’ images for interactive while the DGA will most likely bring the matter to the bargaining table next year.

What really rules the roost though, is power, with the bigger names being the only ones able to hold onto interactive rights.

“A lot of people are getting hip to asking for interactive rights, but not a lot of them can peel those rights away unless they’re someone like Tom Clancy,” noted one studio executive.

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