There’s been a killer development in the ongoing legal battle for control over the Friday the 13th Franchise. In a major victory for screenwriter Victor Miller, U.S. District Court Judge Stefan Underhill has granted summary judgment in favor of Miller, and against producer Sean Cunningham. This grants Miller the rights to the franchise, although just what that means is hard to follow. Copyright law is complex even at the best of times, and this is a strange case full of odd twists.
As we detailed earlier this year, Victor Miller wrote the original screenplay that would become Friday the 13th. Titled A Long Night at Camp Blood, the script followed a group of camp counselors caught in the murderous web of Pamela Voorhees. This makes Miller the author and subsequently therefore the original copyright holder. Under the 1976 amendment to the U.S. Copyright act, an author can reclaim the rights to their work after 39 years of copyright. Which is exactly what Miller did.
While those waters seem clear, all you you have to do is talk to series producer Sean Cunningham to make things murky. Cunningham’s legal team argued that Miller wrote the script as a writer-for-hire and that Cunningham was the main creative force behind the story. This would make Miller ineligible to reclaim copyrights as an author because works written as part of an employment belong to the employer.
Miller argued successfully that there was never any work for hire agreement specifically laid out, as required by law, and it seems that Judge Underhill agreed. Where this leaves the Friday The 13th franchise is far less clear. In his victory, Miller gains the rights to the “Friday The 13th” title, as well as all character and plot elements established in his original screenplay. But he may not actually have ownership of “Jason Voorhees“, the ambiguously undead slayer of teenagers seen in Friday the 13th Part 2 onwards. In his judgment opinion, Underhill writes.
I also decline to analyze the extent to which Miller can claim copyright in the monstrous ‘Jason’ figure present in sequels to the original film. Horror may very well be able to argue that the Jason character present in later films is distinct from the Jason character briefly present in the first film, and Horror or other participants may be able to stake a claim to have added sufficient independently copyrightable material to Jason in the sequels to hold independent copyright in the adult Jason character.
Like Jason, this legal battle probably isn’t dead yet. Sean Cunningham is likely to appeal, which means there are more court dates ahead. Could Sean Cunningham keep making movies with “Adult Jason”? Maybe? Could Victor Miller launch a new Friday The 13th Franchise about a drowned ghost boy? Beats me! All we can do now is put on our hockey masks and hope that the next Friday the 13th comes sooner rather than later.