The Slamdance Film Festival is an annual film festival focused on emerging artists and low-budget independent films, created in 1995.
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Bringing 22 years of Entertainment Law experience, Slamdance Film Festival and Pierce Law Group are looking to field questions about and give insight into the legal minefield that is the entertainment industry. We’ll answer any question you have, everything from creative rights to talent negotiations to distribution.
Information About Lawyers Involved: https://www.piercelawgroupllp.com/
Thank you to everyone who participated. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity to do something similar to this in the future. We really enjoyed answering your questions. The most important piece of advice we can give creatives is stay determined. Make work that speaks to you and keep pressing on.
Hi, I wrote a scene where a group of characters sing a song from 1961 "karaoke style". The characters are singing the song, not the artist. What are my usage rights? Is this under fair use? Do I need a sync license if I use the music part of the track instead of the characters singing it Acappella? Thanks!
JRB: Generally, if you are going to use the lyrics of a song that is not considered "public domain," you are going to have to acquire a sync license for the composition from the music publisher, not to mention acquire a license for the sound recording if the song sounds like the actual instrumental of the original and not a "knock off" backing track. If possible, use a cheesy karaoke-sounding instrumental in the scene. As for the fair use element, it will depend largely on what the completed film is used for, but one way to think about it is that if you hope to profit from your movie, it will be harder to demonstrate fair use.
JAE: Unless the singing is horrible, an acappella performance will still be recognizable. You would need the sync license if people are able to identify the song, because it would be considered a public performance.
I have a novel that somebody else wrote that I want to adapt into a screenplay. What are the legalities of this?
JRB: Without getting into any tangential issues such as life rights or name and likeness, if you are trying to adapt a novel that is wholely fiction based on fictional characters, you would start by contacting the writer or the publisher (whoever controls the copyright) and purchase the right to create a movie based on the novel. Commonly what happens when you purchase movie rights for a book, you pay for an "option" do either make a movie or not, and that option period might start with 1 year with a renewal for additional years at a price. Then, once you decide you want to make the movie, you enter into a purchase agreement. The point of this process is that you lock up the right to be the first one to make the movie version of the novel, but you don't pay the full purchase price until you're actually ready to pull the trigger. Sometimes exercising the option will be conditioned on a screenplay being written which may or may not be subject to approval of the writer/publisher (that would depend entirely on what you negotiate). Once you purchase the rights, then you start worrying about the rest of the legal issues that coincide with making a movie.
What are your recommendations for best maintaining and organizing proper chain of title during a production?
JRB: First and foremost, register the copyright in the work if it is not already registered. If you are not the original author, you will need some form of a copyright assignment from the original author. From there, you would keep a paper trail of documents that shows the "chain of title" of the copyright starting with the original author to the producer to the distributor, and every step in between. In theory, the copyright should be updated with the US Copyright Office every step of the way to place the world on notice, but in a typical transaction you are only required to rep and warrant that YOU delivered clear chain of title to the receiving party.
Edit: all of these documents should end up in the final production binder for the distributor when it comes time to sell the movie.
As a musician or actor what kind of leverage do I have in a talent negotiation in order to gain a more favorable contract?
JAE: It depends on how good and recognizable a musician or actor you are. If you don't have a substantial number of credits or sales, then you don't have a significant amount of leverage. That being said, good representation will try their best to get you industry standard gives. Managers and agents have a reputation to uphold and have to live up to a certain standard. For instance, CAA makes sure their talent gets a CAA standard deal. Negotiating a bad deal for their talent would diminish their brand.
What are some things to avoid (or lean into) when making a piece of fan fiction (like a short film for youtube)? I see things like "Dirty Laundry" on Youtube which is CLEARLY a Punisher short film and violating copyright laws but its been up for years now getting millions of views. Why doesn't this get taken down and others do?
JRB: I have not seen "Dirty Laundry" (looking it up right now!) but YouTube videos seem to come with a whole myriad of legal issues. The biggest challenge for everyone to grasp is "will this be considered fair use on YouTube?" But really, the more important question is "will the original copyright owner care?" When YouTube pulls down a video, it is 99% of the time triggered by someone else telling YouTube that they own the original copyright and someone else is infringing on it. YouTube has a copyright takedown-notice procedure in place, which many YouTubers have come across. The videos that get flagged the quickest are the ones that use commercially recorded songs or actual footage from a film or tv show. YouTube has "bots" that scan for these regularly (which is why you see so many people uploading chopped and screwed versions of songs, or color-graded video footage). But even then, when YouTube's bot flags it, the copyright owner has to be the one to decide to take it down. So whenever you see something with millions of views that seems like it would be copyright infringement, the more relevant question is "does the copyright owner care?" Sometimes these parody videos or alt versions bring more exposure to the copyright owner, and is simply a form of grass-roots marketing that the copyright owner didn't have to pay a dime for!
JAE: To add another note, many of these renditions compliment the universe and don't carbon copy the property. If your work positively adds to the brand, image, or universe, then there is a chance that the property owner will let the work sit.
I'm considering writing a novel where several characters - good and bad - are Hollywood celebrities. In some cases this would involve real-life events grossly but openly mischaracterized. Fictitious example: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie break up because Brad realizes she is a evil necromancer. Is this legal? Would I need to do anything with disclaimers, i.e. "This book is a novel and heavily fictionalized"?
JRB: To put in perspective, these disclaimers are generally included in order to protect the film maker from lawsuits claiming that the movie defamed the Hollywood celebrity or cast them in a false light. You essentially don't want to make statements of fact that the celebrity can later prove false, and these disclaimers are an attempt to let the viewer know that everything in this film is just an opinion or a false rendition of what happened. Of course, these disclaimers are never bullet proof and you could still be liable depending on who it is and what you say. But aside from the defamation issues, you will more than likely need their permission to use their name and likeness, and they'll want to know exactly what it is you are saying about them.
What are the parameters around being allowed to be 'based on a true story' without the sign-off of the people in the story? How about the source material, if something is in the news or in a few books - can that story be told without the license to the material?
JRB: I will try to answer the second question at least. Facts that fall into this bucket of "newsworthiness" or "public interest" that turn into public information technically might not require a license. However, the moment you start including the names of real people or real companies, it is best practice to seek a license to make sure you cya. The last thing you want is to spend your entire movie budget only to find out that the real life person in your story now seeks a court order to block your movie because it discloses private facts, uses the person's name and likeness without permission, defames or casts that person in a false light, or intentionally causes that person emotional distress.
Bummer, that may kill the project.
Thank you very much for the response, though!
Hi, I don’t really have a question regarding film rights etc, I just wanted to know what advice you would give to a law student who wants to work in entertainment law? For example, what would be the best way to go about getting relevant work experience and what are entertainment law firms looking for in candidates? Thanks!
JAE: First you should realize, entertainment law is a fancy way of saying contract law. Make sure you get an "A" in contracts, or at least close to an "A." Next, get as well versed in guild agreements as you can. The first thing you need to know is the SAG and DGA agreements. You should know the crew agreements; however, you can put those off for a little bit. If you can take those classes in law school, then make sure you do.
When you get out of law school just intern at a law firm, and download the agreements on your own. There are also extension programs, like UCLA Extension, and you don't have to be a student to take the courses.
In summation, get good grades, be proactive about your education, and try to intern at a law firm. Goodluck!
JRB: Let me add by saying that we were all in your shoes once upon a time! Personally, I was stalking the major record labels and studios job boards, getting LinkedIn notifications, and signing up for EntertainmentCareers.net. Keep checking on them frequently and you are bound to find something come up. You just have to beat everyone else to the punch. Don't forget your alumni network too.
Online there are a lot of template songwriter agreements that seem to contain different things. What main points should be included in a songwriter/production agreement?
JRB: Let me preface by saying that "songwriters" and "producers" are typically different hats that you wear. In a producer agreement, generally the recording artist is paying you for your service and compensating you with money up front as well as a percentage of sales from the recording. Certain things can eat away at the royalty money are "three-quarter rate" provisions and Net Proceeds definitions.
As a songwriter, your biggest concern will be making sure your name is attributed to the copyright. Usually, the songwriters will sign a formal agreement, or just a simple split-sheet, which includes the publisher information and performing rights societies (PROs). Then whoever registers the copyright has the obligation of making sure to register it with the copyright office and the PROs according to the split sheet. Generally you aren't dealing with upfront money as a songwriter, but if you become big enough you might (see every example of a famous rapper guest-appearing on a radio single to promote sales of the song).
Does it help to not use specific names, logos etc. even if it is wildly obvious that it's based on an existing IP? Does a certain amount of ambiguity help at all?
JRB: In general, the more you can stay away from identifiable trademarks or copyrights, the better.
Hi, thanks so much for doing this! Aspiring screenwriter here and I was wondering, when it comes to adapting life rights of historical figures - but you take inspiration from published books about these figures - how does the process of getting rights differ from, say, adapting a fictional novel?
JRB: Thanks for the question, but this may vary depending on which state the estate of the historical figure resides in. Otherwise, in general when you are adapting a fiction novel based on fictional characters, you don't have to worry about life rights / right of publicity at all, whereas with historical figures you may if it was recent enough.
What are the legal issues surrounding mockbusters (quickly filmed movies designed to ride the tail of marketing push of more capitalized movies)? Are there any instances where a mockbuster, beating its counterpart to market, can force the larger movie to change elements (such as name, plot points, etc...)?
JRB: I think generally where mockbusters cross the line is when it starts to infringe on protected elements of a blockbuster film. For the record "ideas" are not protectable under copyright, only the tangible expression of that is. So in theory anyone can make a movie about a lost civilization of spiritual warriors rising up to fight a galactic government bound to control the universe without calling George Lucas for a license.
As for the mockbuster beating its counterpart to market, copyright infringement is only a winnable case if you can prove the blockbuster had access to the mockbuster's protected work. So if the blockbuster was written and produced in 2017, and the mockbuster was released in 2018, it would be rather difficult to prove that the writers somehow accessed a canned film of the mockbuster before writing the blockbuster version regardless of which went to theater first.
JRB: I think it's time for me to sign off. Thanks for the questions everyone! Best of luck to all the aspiring movie makers. Our practice does not exist if not for all of you actively creating new content every day. Remember, content is king.