It is not just The Terminator which may leave its longtime studio home in the near term: a handful of beloved '80s properties, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Die Hard, and Beetlejuice may have their copyrights reclaimed by the original screenwriters or the writers of the source material on which they are based. The Hollywood Reporter has a list of numerous such properties, which may change hands over the next couple of years. The reason? In the 1970s, as characters like Mickey Mouse and Superman neared the end of what should have been their copyright term and threatened to fall into the public domain, Congress acted to protect the corporations that owned them.
The expansion of copyright protection was not without strings, though, including a condition that copyrights which had been sold or transferred could, as a result of the changes to the Copyright Act, be reverted to their original copyright holders. While the idea at the time was largely that it was protecting people who sold their rights prior to 1978 (which would have meant that they sold the rights for less than they theoretically could have under the new rules), it has also given later creators a chance to reacquire things they sold off.
The most obvious recent example of this is the Friday the 13th franchise, where original writer Victor Miller has (thus far successfully, although an appeal is pending) sued to reacquire the rights to the franchise. The current rights-holders say that Miller has no claim on them since he wrote the movie under a work-for-hire contract, which makes the producers the statutory creator, although a court did not find that argument persuasive.
Lawyer Mac Toberoff, who is representing a number of the claimants here, is familiar with that gambit, though; he was the attorey for the estate of Jerry Siegel when the Siegel heirs sued Warner Bros. to try to get the rights to Superman back. After a number of wins and losses for each side of a protracted legal battle, the Siegels and DC eventually came to an agreement, the details of which were not disclosed. Toberoff also represented the family of Jack Kirby in a failed lawsuit against Marvel.
In an age of reboots, remakes, and sequels dominating at the box office, this has far-reaching implications for the film industry. Not only may it change who has the right to make follow-ups to fan-favorite movies of the past, but THR suggests that in some cases the two-year waiting period between when an author files to reclaim a copyright and when the new owner has to stop using it may spur hasty attempts to cash in on the property one last time.
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