If years of legal wrangling over the fate of Jason Voorhees wasn’t enough to convince you, a new lawsuit filed by the writers of Predator should make it clear that the next few years in Hollywood are going to be a wild ride. Exploiting a clause in the 1978 copyright act, Jim and John Thomas have filed a lawsuit against Disney, hoping to cancel the initial transfer of copyright that they made to 20th Century Fox when they sold the original screenplay. Changes to the copyright law made in 1978 allowed for significantly expanded copyright durations, in part because companies like Disney, whose most valuable assets are their intellectual property, had been lobbying for it for years.
That same law, though, addressed the apparent unfairness in allowing big companies to buy copyrighted work from its creators under the terms of pre-1978 law, and then enjoy the post-1978 benefits without compensating the creators. To make up for this, IP creators/authors were given an opportunity to petition for the return of their copyrights after a certain amount of time — usually 35 years.
Many such cases filed in the comic book market have been unsuccessful so far, because the work for hire contracts used by American comics publishers identify virtually all work created while under the employ of the publisher as work made for hire, which means that rather than the author creating a work and then transferring the copyright to the publisher, the publisher is understood to be, for legal purposes, the original author. Some cases, though, have gone the other way.
According to the complaint, the effective termination date for their screenplay (originally titled “Hunters”) is April 17 — this weekend — meaning that if Disney doesn’t settle with the Thomases, it’s likely their planned Predator reboot from 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg will have to be delayed until the disposition of the case.
In 2017, Paramount announced that a planned reboot of the Friday the 13th horror franchise after screenwriter Victor Miller sued to reclaim the rights of Friday the 13th via the copyright act. Sean Cunningham, the film’s director and producer, said that he had hired Miller, and the screenplay was work made for hire. With that lawsuit still ongoing, Cunningham also recently launched a suit against Paramount and Warner Bros., who distributed some of the Friday the 13th films as well, claiming that dishonest studio math had deprived him of money he was owed as a result of previous films he licensed to the studios.
The Predator suit is notable in that it’s the first such lawsuit that has targeted Disney over properties previously owned by 20th Century Fox, which Disney purchased in 2019. The Hollywood Reporter, who first reported on the suit, notes that the potential exists for many of the popular ’80s franchises that have been driving evergreen home video revenue for decades are set to lapse in the months and years to come, making studios vulnerable to a non-stop parade of lawsuits like this. The temptation to settle, something that studios have already tried to do as often as they can, will likely be only more compelling as time goes on and studios realize that they can keep their franchises active by simply paying the writers off to go away and let them retain or renew their licenses.