In Return of the Living Dead, a warehouse owner accidentally reanimates some cadavers, who then become unkillable zombies. While not based on a true story, the 1985 film does have some parallels in real life (if you squint real hard and just go with it).
As discussed last week, copyright claims can also return from the dead when the author is an independent contractor. This week we discuss what can be done to avoid this zombie copyright scenario.
In the case of Horror Inc. v. Miller, the Second Circuit ruled that screenwriter Victor Miller could reclaim the copyright to Friday the 13th after 35 years, since he wrote the script as an independent contractor.
The case highlights a serious risk when retaining a writer as an independent contractor instead of as an employee. If a work is not a “work made for hire” under the U.S. Copyright Act, the author can reclaim a copyright 35 years after having transferred the rights away.
Horror, Inc. argued that Miller was an employee when he wrote the script, which made it a “work made for hire.” The court disagreed, but the rights holder should have had another argument in its back pocket – one that would have been much cleaner and could have changed the result of the case.
Employment is just one path for designating something a “work made for hire.” Another path toward the same designation is to have a “specially commissioned work.”
If Miller’s contract to write the movie had indicated that the movie was a specially commissioned work for use as part of a motion picture, it would not have mattered whether he was an employee or an independent contractor. The “specially commissioned work” designation would have made the work a “work made for hire” without getting into the messiness of employment, which would mean that Miller could not reclaim any rights after 35 years. This circular from the copyright office explains the “specially commissioned work” rule.
There are important lessons from this case for anyone seeking to engage a writer, whether it’s a freelancer or a script writer.
First, think through the implications of employee vs. independent contractor, not only in the context of employment law but also copyright law.
Second, consider a belt-and-suspenders approach. Even if the writer is your employee under labor law, the writer might not be your employee under U.S. Copyright Act — at least according to the Horror, Inc. case. Consider Plan B. You maybe able to designate the work a “specially commissioned work” or use one of the other definitions of a “work made for hire,” assuming that the facts fit within the definition.
But there are pitfalls to the second approach too. The California Labor Code says that if a work is a “work made for hire,” then the relationship between the writer and the acquirer is automatically employment, at least under certain provisions in the Labor Code. See Cal. Unemp. Ins. Code Section 686 and Cal. Lab. Code Section 3351.5(c).
If the California Economic Development Department (EDD) performs a misclassification audit, it will likely ask for all independent contractor agreements, and if a deliverable has been designated as a “work made for hire,” that may serve as conclusive proof of misclassification, with back assessments owed for failure to pay unemployment taxes.
You can get around the whole “work made for hire” issue by assigning the work, but that leaves the door open for the writer to reclaim the copyright after 35 years. And we’re right back where we started.
The independent contractor vs. employee decision has important implications in copyright law that are often overlooked. The Horror, Inc. case is a good reminder of some of the surprises that may arise many years later.
© 2021 Todd Lebowitz, posted on WhoIsMyEmployee.com, Exploring Issues of Independent Contractor Misclassification and Joint Employment. All rights reserved.