Pryor Cashman Partner James Sammataro, co-chair of the firm's Media + Entertainment Group, spoke with Variety about Sylvester Stallone's issues with the current state of the Rocky film franchise.
Stallone wrote and starred in the original Rocky in 1976, but recently expressed that he is unhappy with an upcoming project featuring franchise characters Ivan and Viktor Drago.
In "Could Sylvester Stallone Get His Share of 'Rocky?' Legal Experts Explain," James weighed in with historical context for Stallone's position regarding his rights to the franchise:
While Stallone's public dissatisfaction with the ownership situation hasn't spilled over into any legal action, disputes over copyright and ownership over fictional characters are fairly common, and almost always go in the direction of the content owner. The comic book realm is particularly rife with with legal battles from the estates of creators like Jack Kirby over the characters they created — such as the Fantastic Four and X-Men — ending in courts ruling in Marvel or DC's favor.
James Sammataro, partner at Pryor Cashman and co-chair of the firm's media and entertainment group, explains that these cases rest on a provision in copyright acts that Congress developed for cases before the current 1976 copyright act, due to an inequity of bargaining power in deals made before that time. In this provision, after a roughly 35-year period after the original deal, creators can issue "termination rights" to attempt to reclaim their copyright.
The reason why many of these cases go in favor of the current rights holder, according to Sammataro, is because it rests on proving that the original work was developed outside of a "work for hire" situation, or that the project was developed without being commissioned by the rights holder for the express purpose of selling the work. With comic book properties especially, the cases have found that the works were made for hire, and as such the courts have sided with the rights holder.
"When you do something as a work made for hire, your company that you're rendering the services to becomes the owner," Sammataro explains. "In most of those instances, the facts have lined up that it was a work made for hire, such that the employer or that company provided the tools, heavily edited the project, farmed out the work, essentially was the governing spirit behind the work and the person was more of a scribe as opposed to the creative source for it."
For a case that ended in success for the original writer, Sammataro pointed to a 2018 lawsuit regarding "Friday the 13th," where original screenwriter Victor Miller received full ownership over the original screenplay after the court ruled in his favor, as an example of the termination rights succeeding. In that case, the court ruled in Miller's favor by stating that the original screenplay was not made on a work for hire basis, not prepared within scope of employment, and that he was an independent contractor working on the project.
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