Horror Inc. v. Miller, No. 3:16-cv-1442 (SRU)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)
Writing for the CourtStefan R. Underhill, United States District Judge
Citation335 F.Supp.3d 273
Docket NumberNo. 3:16-cv-1442 (SRU)
Decision Date28 September 2018
Parties HORROR INC. and Manny Company, Plaintiffs, v. Victor MILLER, Defendant.

335 F.Supp.3d 273

HORROR INC. and Manny Company, Plaintiffs,
v.
Victor MILLER, Defendant.

No. 3:16-cv-1442 (SRU)

United States District Court, D. Connecticut.

Signed September 28, 2018


335 F.Supp.3d 283

Alexander Rudolf Malbin, Ferdinand IP, LLC/NY, New York, NY, Bonnie E. Eskenazi, Pro Hac Vice, Julia R. Haye, Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman Machtinger & Kinsella LLP, Los Angeles, CA, Edmund J. Ferdinand, III, Jessica Strom Rutherford, Ferdinand IP, LLC, Westport, CT, for Plaintiffs.

John J. Martin, J. Martin Business Law Group, LLC, Fairfield, CT, Marc Toberoff, Pro Hac Vice, Toberoff & Associates, PC, Malibu, CA, for Defendant.

RULING ON CROSS-MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Stefan R. Underhill, United States District Judge

Nearly 40 years ago, a screenplay was written about Camp Crystal Lake. The film created from the screenplay went on to significant commercial success. Lurking below that peaceful surface, however, was the Copyright Act's termination right, waiting for just the right moment, when it would emerge and wreak havoc on the rights to the screenplay.

This is a case about copyright ownership in the screenplay to the original Friday the 13th film. The Copyright Act, which went into effect in 1978, only a year before the screenplay was written, provided authors with a new and important benefit—the ability to terminate grants of their copyright interests and reclaim their copyrights, beginning thirty-five years after

335 F.Supp.3d 284

they first transferred their rights. The termination right was established to permit authors to access the long tail of proceeds from a successful work that they could not initially have anticipated when they conveyed away their rights. The important exception to the Copyright Act's termination right is that the copyright in "works made for hire" by an employee, and, in limited circumstances, an independent contractor, cannot be clawed back. The termination right cannot apply in such cases because the hiring party is itself considered the initial author of the work.

The defendant in this declaratory judgment action is Victor Miller ("Miller"), the credited screenwriter of the original Friday the 13th screenplay. In 1979, Miller was contacted by his friend, Sean Cunningham ("Cunningham"), an already successful producer, to collaborate on a horror film project—with Miller as the screenwriter and Cunningham as the producer. The duo's process was informal, meeting at each other's homes and at coffee shops in the southern Connecticut area. But the deal was also papered over, and Miller, a Writer's Guild of America ("WGA") member, was officially hired to write the screenplay for the film pursuant to a short form-agreement by the Manny Company ("Manny"), an entity formed by Cunningham that was a party to the WGA collective bargaining agreement. The agreement between Miller and Manny was silent regarding authorship of the screenplay (as that term is used in the Copyright Act) but Miller plainly relinquished any control over the exploitation of the screenplay to Cunningham and Manny. Cunningham and Manny eventually sold their interest in the film, and the runaway hit earned Manny's successors in interest significant profits. Now, more than three decades later, Miller has timely filed and served notices purporting to terminate any permission he granted to Manny and its successors to exploit his work.

Manny and Manny's latest successor-in-interest, Horror Inc. ("Horror") have brought the present action seeking a declaration that Miller prepared the screenplay as a work for hire, and thus never held authorship rights in the work and cannot terminate Horror's ongoing exploitation of the copyright.1 Miller has counterclaimed seeking a declaration of the validity of his termination of Horror's and Manny's rights.

Understanding the context of this case requires understanding what is not in dispute. This is not a case where the parties signed a written agreement that expressly provided that Miller's work was being commissioned as a work made for hire. Such a writing is one of two paths to work-for-hire status, and writings of that type are the norm in the motion picture industry.

Horror's and Manny's remaining path to work-for-hire status for Miller lies in the argument that Miller produced the work as Manny's employee, within the scope of his employment. Perhaps concerned by the implications of Miller's casual relationship with Cunningham, however, Horror and Manny do not focus on the traditional agency-law analysis mandated by the Supreme Court for determining employee status under the Copyright Act. Horror and Manny propose a sort of "no further inquiry" rule of employee status resulting from Miller's hiring, as a WGA member by a signatory to the WGA collective bargaining agreement. Unfortunately for Horror

335 F.Supp.3d 285

and Manny, the Supreme Court's agency-law analysis does not allow any exceptions for union members, and under the proper agency analysis Miller was not Manny's employee. Accordingly, the screenplay written by Miller was not a work-for-hire.

I. Background

Victor Miller is a professional writer of novels, screenplays and teleplays, and has been a member of the Writers Guild of America, East, Inc. ("WGA") since 1974. [Plaintiffs' 56(a)(1) Statement ("Pls.' Facts"), Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶ 2; Defendant's 56(a)(1) Statement ("Def.'s Facts"), Doc. No. 45-3, at ¶ 1.] Sean S. Cunningham is a producer, director, and writer of feature films, who began producing and directing films in 1970. [Declaration of Sean S. Cunningham ("Cunningham Decl."), Doc. No. 43-4, at ¶ 2.] Cunningham's involvement in filmmaking is primarily coordinated through Sean S. Cunningham Films, Ltd. ("SSCF"), of which Cunningham is a principal. [Cunningham Decl., Doc. No. 43-4, at ¶ 2; Pls.' Facts, Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶ 1.] In 1976, Miller and Cunningham, who were already close friends [Def.'s Facts, Doc. No. 45-3, at ¶ 4], began working together on motion picture projects, starting with a film titled Here Come the Tigers [Pls.' Facts, Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶¶ 4-5]. Here Come the Tigers was a "non-union project", written by Miller and produced and directed by Cunningham. [Pls.' Facts, Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶¶ 6-7.]

In 1978, Miller and Cunningham again collaborated on another film, Manny's Orphans . In order to develop Manny's Orphans , Cunningham and his company, SSCF, formed The Manny Company ("Manny"), a Connecticut Limited Partnership, with Cunningham and SSCF as its general partners. [Def.'s Facts, Doc. No. 45-3, at ¶¶ 2-3.] In order to engage Miller to work on Manny's Orphans , Miller was hired by Manny, which had become a signatory to the then-operative collective bargaining agreement between the WGA and signatory industry employers, the 1977 WGA Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement (the "Minimum Basic Agreement" or "MBA"). [Pls.' Facts, Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶ 11.]

On each film, the nature of Miller's and Cunningham's working relationship remained the same: while Miller was writing the screenplay, he and Cunningham would meet at each other's homes, Cunningham's home office, a local diner, or over the phone, in order to exchange ideas. [Cunningham Decl., Doc. No. 43-4, at ¶ 6; Pls.' Facts, Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶¶ 7, 12; Defendant's 56(a)(2) Response ("Def.'s Obj. to Pls.' Facts"), Doc. No. 51-3, at ¶ 12.]2

In 1979, the success of the low-budget horror film Halloween inspired Cunningham to make a horror film. [Pls.' Facts, Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶ 13; Def.'s Facts, Doc.

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No. 45-3, at ¶ 6.] Cunningham contacted Miller to solicit his involvement as a writer for the film. [Pls.' Facts, Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶ 14; Plaintiffs' 56(a)(2) Response ("Pls.' Obj. to Def.'s Facts"), Doc. No. 47-2, at ¶ 6; Def.'s Facts, Doc. No. 45-3, at ¶ 6.]3 Miller agreed to work on the project, and, at some point in time over the course of working alone and with Cunningham on a story and script, Miller entered into a "Writer's Flat Deal Contract" (the "Contract") with Manny. [Pls.' Facts, Doc. No. 43-2, at ¶ 25; Def.'s Facts, Doc. No. 45-3, at ¶ 17.]4

The Contract itself is a brief form agreement with blanks to be filled in by the parties.5 Styled as an "EMPLOYMENT AGREEMENT", it states that "[t]he Company employs the Writer to write a complete and finished screenplay for a proposed motion picture ... presently entitled or designated Friday 13." [Ex. B, Cunningham Decl., Doc. No. 43-6] The form allows the parties to check various boxes to designate whether the work product called for in the agreement will include a "Treatment", "Original Treatment", "Story", "First draft screenplay", "Final draft screenplay", or "Rewrite of screenplay", and only the boxes for "First draft screenplay" and "Final draft screenplay" are checked. [Ex. B, Cunningham Decl.,

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Doc. No. 43-6.] The form also includes a section in which the parties can identify pre-existing materials on which the agreed-upon work product will be based ("based upon (describe form of material & title) ___________ written by ___________"). [Ex. B, Cunningham Decl., Doc. No. 43-6.] In the Contract, the "Writer" represents that...

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7 practice notes
  • Horror Inc. v. Miller, Docket No. 18-3123-cv
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • September 30, 2021
    ...opinion by District Judge Stefan R. Underhill, which was based on the record at summary judgment. See Horror Inc. v. Miller , 335 F. Supp. 3d 273, 285 (D. Conn. 2018). The relevant facts were essentially undisputed by the parties.Victor Miller is a professional writer of novels, screenplays......
  • Horror Inc. v. Miller, 18-3123-cv
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • September 30, 2021
    ...opinion by District Judge Stefan R. Underhill, which was based on the record at summary judgment. See Horror Inc. v. Miller, 335 F.Supp.3d 273, 285 (D. Conn. 2018). The relevant facts were essentially undisputed by the parties. Victor Miller is a professional writer of novels, screenplays, ......
  • Mtume v. Sony Music Entm't, 18 Civ. 6037(ER)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • September 30, 2019
    ...F. Supp. 2d 1048, 1052 (C.D. Cal. 2009) [hereinafter Siegel II ] (citing 37 C.F.R. § 201.10(e)(1) ); see also Horror Inc. v. Miller , 335 F. Supp. 3d 273, 319 (D. Conn. 2018) (finding that putting incorrect addresses in the termination notice did not invalidate it); Siegel v. Warner Bros. E......
  • Johansen v. Sony Music Entertaiment Inc., 19 Civ. 1094 (ER)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • March 31, 2020
    ...690 F. Supp. 2d 1048, 1052 (C.D. Cal. 2009) [hereinafter Siegel II] (citing 37 C.F.R. § 201.10(e)(1)); see also Horror Inc. v. Miller, 335 F. Supp. 3d 273, 319 (D. Conn. 2018) (finding that putting incorrect addresses in the termination notice did not invalidate it); Siegel v. Warner Bros. ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
5 cases
  • Horror Inc. v. Miller, Docket No. 18-3123-cv
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • September 30, 2021
    ...opinion by District Judge Stefan R. Underhill, which was based on the record at summary judgment. See Horror Inc. v. Miller , 335 F. Supp. 3d 273, 285 (D. Conn. 2018). The relevant facts were essentially undisputed by the parties.Victor Miller is a professional writer of novels, screenplays......
  • Horror Inc. v. Miller, 18-3123-cv
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • September 30, 2021
    ...opinion by District Judge Stefan R. Underhill, which was based on the record at summary judgment. See Horror Inc. v. Miller, 335 F.Supp.3d 273, 285 (D. Conn. 2018). The relevant facts were essentially undisputed by the parties. Victor Miller is a professional writer of novels, screenplays, ......
  • Mtume v. Sony Music Entm't, 18 Civ. 6037(ER)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • September 30, 2019
    ...F. Supp. 2d 1048, 1052 (C.D. Cal. 2009) [hereinafter Siegel II ] (citing 37 C.F.R. § 201.10(e)(1) ); see also Horror Inc. v. Miller , 335 F. Supp. 3d 273, 319 (D. Conn. 2018) (finding that putting incorrect addresses in the termination notice did not invalidate it); Siegel v. Warner Bros. E......
  • Johansen v. Sony Music Entertaiment Inc., 19 Civ. 1094 (ER)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • March 31, 2020
    ...690 F. Supp. 2d 1048, 1052 (C.D. Cal. 2009) [hereinafter Siegel II] (citing 37 C.F.R. § 201.10(e)(1)); see also Horror Inc. v. Miller, 335 F. Supp. 3d 273, 319 (D. Conn. 2018) (finding that putting incorrect addresses in the termination notice did not invalidate it); Siegel v. Warner Bros. ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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