Will granting permission for an amateur film of my story mean giving up my film rights forever?
September 6, 2008 11:00 AM   Subscribe

I've just found out second-hand that someone is planning on making a film out of one of my short stories. Which is fine, I suppose, presuming he actually does ask my permission, and presuming it's strictly an amateur not-for-profit film. My question is -- if I do give my permission, will that harm any rights I have to the story? Suppose I wanted to sell the rights to a "real" movie of the story someday -- will giving my permission here mean I've given up the film rights entirely?
posted by webmutant to Law & Government (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You need a written agreement, no matter what. So it all depends on what you write down and sign. If it says Webmutant hereby gives Someone the sole, exclusive right to make any and all films based on Story, then you've given it up. If it says, Webmutant hereby gives Someone the right to make one, single film based on Story, and reserves to himself all further rights, then you retain the rights to make a "real" movie. Best to have a lawyer do this that has worked with rights issues.

If he makes a horrible movie, however, that could harm your chances of any future films. On the other hand, if he does a pretty good amateur job, it may help your chances to sell it to Steven Spielberg.
posted by beagle at 11:13 AM on September 6, 2008

You really only need a lawyer if the rights have some serious economic value to justify the expense. Yes as long as you do not grant him exclusive rights then you have not given anything up. The main thing I would worry about is whether or not a big studio would be less inclined to purchase the rights given somebody else has already made a movie on them.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 11:21 AM on September 6, 2008

“Someone” cannot “make a film out of” one of your short stories. Unless you’re in some oddball country (you aren’t; you’re in the U.S.) or were stupid enough to assign a Creative Commons licence of a certain type, only the copyright holder (presumably you) may authorize the creation of a derivative work. A movie is a derivative work.

You have it backwards: It is not a question of how much harm to your rights will occur if you authorize the film version; it is a basic fact (not even in question) that this “someone” has no right to make the film version without your permission in the first place.

Any filmmaker or would-be filmmaker who would forge ahead without clearing the rights first is either stupid or malicious. Either way you don’t want to do be doing business with that kind of person. You can and should turn them down flat. You can use my copyright lawyer if you want.
posted by joeclark at 11:23 AM on September 6, 2008

Yeah, keep the lawyers out of it until Spielberg gets involved ... but do get some kind of basic agreement that basically says:

Sure, make the movie but if you want any kind of rights to it beyond that, then give me some serious cash up front (ie: before principal photography begins), at least enough to justify the time it took me to write the story and the efforts its taken me to develop my talents.

The important thing here, I think, is not to somehow kill the project by getting all uptight about it. It could be very good for your career.
posted by philip-random at 11:28 AM on September 6, 2008

They should probably have talked to you, but as long as they don't seem like exploitative fuckers (e.g. if they're film students) then get some restrictive agreement like those up thread.
posted by beerbajay at 11:35 AM on September 6, 2008

Should have previewed.

Joe Clark, I question the animosity in your words which seem to be reading the worst possible intentions into "someone's" actions. Stupid? Malicious? Maybe it's just some young artist who's way more wound up in being creative than hanging out with lawyers.

I personally got out of the habit of asking for "permission" for everything around the time I graduated high school. Not out of malice or stupidity, just because I felt I had better ways to expend my energy. Would I make a movie based on someone else's story without first mentioning it to them? No. Would I definitely NOT make it if the first thing they said was, "Talk to my lawyer." Probably.

Opportunity lost.
posted by philip-random at 11:40 AM on September 6, 2008

Joe's advice, while it doesn't directly answer your question, is the best you've received so far. I'm an film maker who has optioned rights for short story adaptations. There's a right and a wrong way to do it and these guys are taking the piss.

You're asking what an "amateur" film will mean for your story's commercial future. The fact that it is "amateur" is completely irrelevant to your question, so I'm going to assume that they're a group of students or emerging film-makers planning on making a short. If you sign an agreement — and assuming the agreement you sign doesn't preclude the possibility of future movie adaptations — a short will probably increase the chances of you one day making money out of a feature adaptation. Note "probably"; if they do a horrible job then it will reduce the chances. If they do an amazing job but aren't serious about distributing it at film festivals, which remains the only place most people see short films, then it won't make any difference. If you've heard about this project through back channels then, assuming you give them the rights, they are probably the kind of film-makers who will do a poor job of the adaptation and an even worse job of promotion and distribution.

If you do decide to go with them then you should lawyer up or, at the very least, refer to some standard option and purchase agreements so you know what you're looking at. Be aware though that the prospect of them making money out of a short film, even if they're not the unprofessional chancers your question suggests, are vanishingly, vanishingly small. There simply isn't a revenue stream or effective distribution model for short films, so if you ask them for anything more than credit they'll probably walk away. Which, frankly, is probably for the best.

And whatever you do, don't let them make a feature.
posted by caek at 11:53 AM on September 6, 2008

Regarding the side argument about maliciousness, Webmutant could clarify this, but it sound like he heard from someone who heard from someone that Someone is "planning" (not "thinking about planning") to make the movie. So, there certainly is the possibility that Someone is overstepping their bounds.

Regarding lawyering up, it really depends on the scope of the project, but if Someone is planning to spend real money doing this, a lawyer's peek at the agreement might be a good idea. On the other hand, if Webmutant thinks this story has real Hollywood potential, maybe he should just withhold permission at this point.
posted by beagle at 11:57 AM on September 6, 2008

Be aware though that the prospect of them making money out of a short film, even if they're not the unprofessional chancers your question suggests, are vanishingly, vanishingly small. There simply isn't a revenue stream or effective distribution model for short films, so if you ask them for anything more than credit they'll probably walk away. Which, frankly, is probably for the best.

I'm with you right up to your final sentence. Why is it for the best that this creative endeavor not happen? At the very worst, Webmutant is going to learn a few things about the nature of having a work of his (her's?) adapted. I'm not saying, the movie needs to be made at all costs. I am saying, if possible let it be. Something amazing might just happen.
posted by philip-random at 12:33 PM on September 6, 2008

It borders on impossible that a budding filmmaker would be ignorant of the basics of copyright law. Hence, yes, my statement that such a filmmaker has to be stupid or malicious was well-considered and intentional and will, I presume, be borne out.
posted by joeclark at 12:46 PM on September 6, 2008

joeclark is 100% right.

That being said, Stephen King did something really cool with his Dollar Babies concept, and perhaps you should consider it as well.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:11 PM on September 6, 2008

Why is it for the best that this creative endeavor not happen?

We're talking about an adaptation by people who are either ignorant or willfully and unprofessionally ignoring copyright law. Based on the way the question is worded, the probability of this doing active harm to the material's prospects for future adaptation is much greater than the that of the author getting any of the good things that can come from a short film adaptation (increased positive exposure of the material to people who might do a good job of adapting it, a creatively stimulating experience, or even just having fun seeing your story made into a film).
posted by caek at 1:49 PM on September 6, 2008

That being said, if there is zero realistic prospect for a creatively or financially credible film adaptation of this story then, yeah, just go ahead and let them make the film.
posted by caek at 1:52 PM on September 6, 2008

If you decide to go ahead and give them permission, there are some ideas here for what limitations you might impose.
posted by joannemerriam at 3:19 PM on September 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Has the story in question been published? If so, are you sure the rights are still yours to give, (i.e. you didn't naively sign them over to the publisher)?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:34 PM on September 6, 2008

Sys Rq asks a good question.
posted by joeclark at 6:29 AM on September 7, 2008

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