The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a summary judgment grant, ruling that an author was an independent contractor when writing the screenplay for a horror film and entitled to authorship rights, and therefore entitled to exercise his copyright § 203 termination right. Horror Inc. v. Miller, Case No. 18-3123 (2d Cir. Sept. 30, 2021) (Carney, J.)
Victor Miller is an author who has written numerous novels, screenplays and teleplays. Sean Cunningham is a producer, director and writer of feature films and is the general partner of Manny Company. Miller and Cunningham were close friends who began working together around 1976 and collaborated on five motion pictures in their first five years working together. Miller was a member of the Writers Guild of America, East (WGA) and was a signatory of their Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA), which was the collective bargaining agreement at the time.
In 1979, the success of the horror film Halloween inspired Cunningham to produce a horror film. Cunningham reached out to Miller and they orally agreed that Miller would write the screenplay for their upcoming project. The two came to an agreement using the WGA standard form. Miller then began developing the screenplay and the two worked closely together in discussing ideas for the film. Miller picked his working hours but was responsible for completing drafts based on the production schedule of the film. Cunningham had no right to assign additional works to Miller beyond the screenplay.
The dispute concerns whether, for Copyright Act purposes, Miller was an employee or independent contractor of Manny Company, of which Cunningham was the general partner. Cunningham argued that he taught Miller the key elements of a successful horror film, that he gave significant contributions and that he had final authority over what ended up in the screenplay. Miller agreed that Cunningham gave notes but stated that Cunningham never dictated what he wrote. The parties agreed that Cunningham did provide the ideas for making the movie killings “personal,” that the killer remain masked and that they kill a major character early. Miller received “sole ‘written by’ credit” as the screenwriter.
Horror Inc. (successor to Georgetown Horror) financed the project and was given complete control over the screenplay and film. Manny assigned its rights in the film and screenplay to Horror, which registered the copyrights. In the registration, Horror was listed as the film’s work made for hire author with a credit given to Miller for the screenplay. The initial film was a huge hit and has spawned 11 sequels.
In 2016, Miller attempted to reclaim his copyright ownership by invoking his termination rights under 17 U.S.C. § 203 and served notices of termination to Manny and Horror. The two responded by suing Miller and seeking a declaration that the screenplay was a “work for hire,” and therefore Miller could not give a valid termination notice. The district court granted summary judgment to Miller, stating that Miller was the author as he did not prepare the screenplay as [...]