UPDATE: Following Victor Miller’s reclamation of the rights to his original screenplay, Sean Cunningham indeed opted to file yet another appeal. After some time, we finally know when that next court date will take place.
Larry Zerner recently took to Twitter to let it be known that the final court date has been scheduled for February 13th, 2020 at 10am. Depending on the outcome, either Victor Miller or Sean Cunningham could appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the USSC only hears a fraction of the cases that get submitted to them. The odds that any one lawsuit lands at their prestigious doorstep are slim to none. That said, should the supreme justices take up the F13 suit, it could potentially alter the way we here in the states look at artists and if they should be allowed to take back the rights to their work after a certain number of years.
Check out Zerner’s tweet below:
Here’s the original article:
If you’re reading this, then chances are you have at least heard of the Friday the 13th films and/or its iconic masked maniac, Jason Voorhees. It’s one of the most recognizable horror franchises ever invented and one hell of a cash cow, which explains why the IP has been wrapped up in a complicated ongoing lawsuit over who owns the rights. However, to appreciate what it all means, we first must examine some of the historical context of U.S. copyright law as well as the Friday The 13th franchise. I know you can barely contain your excitement.
I want to make something crystal clear before we proceed. I am by no stretch of anyone’s imagination an expert on U.S. copyright law or any other law for that matter. I’m merely a humble film fan with a bachelor’s degree in film production. Not even I understand every little detail of this layered and complex dispute; however, I have done some digging and listened to what real experts have to say on the topic (my sources will be listed at the end of this article as well as referenced throughout). My goal here is to convey the general idea of what is going on with the Friday the 13th rights as simply as possible and as I understand them. Now, let’s break this thing down, shall we?
Horror, Inc. Vs. Victor Miller
The F13 lawsuit is officially filed as “Horror, Inc. Vs. Victor Miller.” Horror, Inc. is a corporate entity created by Sean S. Cunningham. In addition to directing the original F13 film, Cunningham has owned the franchise rights for the last 35 years. For the purpose of this article, I will use “Horror, Inc.” and “Sean Cunningham” interchangeably.
On the receiving end of the suit is one Victor Miller, who wrote the original F13 film then sold it to Sean Cunningham back in 1980 for $9,500. Together, Cunningham and Miller make up the plaintiff and defendant of the F13 suit, respectively.
It’s important to note that Miller only ever wrote the original F13 film, which means this lawsuit is entirely focused on the rights to that one movie. Additionally, the copyright laws we are discussing here are only applicable in the U.S and not internationally. That means this entire lawsuit is centered around the U.S. rights to the one and only original Friday the 13th film.
Now that we know the two players involved and what’s at stake, let’s examine the central conflict in all this. Essentially, Horror, Inc. is suing Victor Miller because they do not want the U.S. rights to that original F13 film to lapse back to him. Why would Miller be getting those rights back after all these years? To understand that, we need to examine a certain provision from the Copyright Act of 1976.
The provision in question, more accurately referred to as Section 203, allows the rights of a piece of work to revert back to the original author after 35 years. The purpose of this provision is to allow an original author a slice of the cake in such cases where he or she is not aware of the monetary value of their work until much later.
Remember, Victor Miller sold his F13 script to Cunningham for $9,500. There is no way he could have known back in 1980 just how popular and successful his trashy Halloween ripoff would eventually become. Victor Miller has filed all the right paperwork, waited the appropriate three-and-half-decades and is now due his slice of the cake.
What’s Taking So Long?
Outside of the natural snail-like pace of the U.S. court system, another reason why this case has been taking as long as it has (Cunningham filed the suit against Miller in 2016) is because Sean Cunningham has been trying to make a couple different arguments as to why Miller should not receive the rights.
First, Cunningham argued that Victor Miller was a work for hire when he wrote the script, as Section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976 does not apply in cases of work for hire. The court shot down Cunningham’s point.
Next, Cunningham tried to argue he was a co-author of the original F13 script, along with Miller. The court quickly pointed out that Miller has been the sole credited author on the original F13 copyright since 1980 and that the statute of limitations on somebody arguing co-authorship on a piece of work is three years. Ultimately, Cunningham long missed his shot to make this argument work.
Victor Is Victorious
In October of 2018, Bloody Disgusting broke the news that Victor Miller had come out on top in the lengthy legal contest with Horror, Inc. Judge Stefan Underhill granted the U.S. rights of the first Friday the 13th film to Victor Miller, per the Section 203 revision.
It was not long after that Horror, Inc. made the decision to appeal the court’s initial ruling. It was a decision destined to once again throw the franchise back under the legal microscope for the foreseeable future.
Where Are We Now?
Recently, there seemed to be some movement in the case that would suggest the whole ordeal was coming to a close. On February 11th, Horror, Inc. filed a withdrawal of their appeal against Victor Miller. As exciting as that sounds, prominent entertainment copyright attorney and Friday the 13th Part III star Larry Zerner, who has been following the case closely, clarified the details via his Twitter and said that the withdrawal was filed “for technical reasons” and may still be refiled. No settlement has yet been reached between Horror, Inc. and Victor Miller.
You can see Zerner’s specific tweets below:
What About Jason?
One thing Sean Cunningham asked the court to clear up following Victor Miller’s win was who owned the rights to adult Jason Voorhees. Remember, Miller only wrote the first F13 film and thus was solely granted the U.S. rights to that specific screenplay. Though that film introduces the lore of kid Jason drowning in Crystal Lake, the killer adult version of the character was not introduced until the sequel, Friday The 13th Part II. Moreover, the most iconic iteration of the character didn’t show up until Part III with the introduction of the hockey mask.
The court ultimately passed on making the call, citing that the lawsuit at hand was not about adult Jason, but rather the U.S. rights to the first Friday the 13th film. However, as Larry Zerner pointed out in his interview with Slash N Cast, the copyright holder holds the right to make derivative works, including sequels.
What does this mean? Well, it sounds like even if another lawsuit developed around the adult Jason Voorhees character, chances are that Victor Miller would again walk away with the win, at least domestically, since he holds the U.S. copyright to the original script, on which everything after is predicated.
Let’s Make A Deal
The main takeaway from all this is that Sean S. Cunningham and Victor Miller can only truly benefit by coming together and reaching some sort of settlement. No matter what the court decides in Victor Miller’s favor, Horror, Inc. still maintains the rights regarding all Friday the 13th films overseas.
Though Miller now rightfully possesses the rights to his work in the States, no studio will go into business with him if they cannot produce a film for international audiences. Likewise, no studio will line up to produce another F13 film with Sean Cunningham if they do not have the rights to put it out in America.
With the horror genre on a recent rebound and a soft Halloween reboot proving there is still an appetite for the slasher icons of old, now is the perfect time to put out another F13. That would require the two parties to come together.
Larry Zerner said to Slash N Cast that he knows Victor’s lawyer and that they are more than willing to make a deal. Hopefully, this latest news about Horror, Inc. dropping their appeal holds true and that it is a sign that Cunningham is willing to call it a truce. There is still time to get a film out for Friday the 13th of March, 2020. Fingers crossed this gets resolved in time!
Again, this is just me barely scratching the surface of what is involved with this lawsuit. There are plenty of fascinating legal questions and none I know the answer too. Still, I hope this whole thing can get resolved soon and with everything getting what is rightfully theirs. I love Friday the 13th and want to see the franchise flourish, as I’m sure all fans do.
What do you make of this complex lawsuit? Do you agree or disagree with the courts final ruling? Should the two parties work out their differences for the future of the franchise? Do you even want to see more Friday the 13th movie? Let me know all your thoughts on this complicated case in the comments below!