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The Seed&Spark Blog

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You Know You Need a Lawyer When: A Filmmakers Guide to Navigating the Legal Landscape

February 16, 2016

• Stacey Davis

1. You want to turn your new favorite read into a film.

Before putting pen to paper, it's necessary to secure the film rights to the literary work from the rights holder (i.e., author or publisher). You may start with an option agreement (giving you a set time to exclusively develop the work prior to purchase) or go straight to a rights acquisition agreement. Either way, it's always a good idea to discuss your options with a qualified attorney. At a minimum, the contract must grant the writer or producer the right to adapt the literary work into a film.

2. You respond to the question "Have you registered your script" with "I've registered it with the WGA."

The WGA is a fine organization that does a tremendous amount of good work for its members and for the screenwriter community at-large, but its registration service is not a substitute for registering your work with the United States Copyright Office. The copyright registration application can be completed online at www.copyright.gov. The site is extremely user friendly: answer a free questions regarding the creation of the work, pay a minimal fee (ranges from $35 - $55), upload or send in a copy of the work, and you're done!

3. You think "volunteers" don't need contracts.

Think again. Anyone working on a film should sign a release, particularly anyone providing "copyrightable" material to the project. The contract need not be an overly complicated thirty-page manifesto. Rather, a well-worded, one or two page release and waiver will often suffice. At a minimum, the release should identify the parties, the services to be performed, payment terms, and a full release of any and all rights in the work.

4. You don't know the difference between a Chain of Title and a Title Clearance Report.

Many first time filmmakers don't think about clearance issues until they receive an E&O insurance quote with a laundry list of requested legal documents. From there, the barrage of questions begins: What's a script clearance report, and how is that different from a copyright clearance report? I need a title clearance report and a chain of title – isn't that the same thing? Savvy producers know clearance issues are best dealt with early and often.

5. Your distribution deal includes recoupment of uncapped fees and expenses.

How would you feel if your distributor pocketed major dollars off the sale of your film, yet somehow you've not collected a dime? If the answer is not good, then make sure you put yourself in the best possible position to recoup on your film by signing onto a distro deal that is fair to all parties and includes well-defined language regarding the distributor's fees and recoupable expenses. Vague, undefined terms will not help when you are haggling over whether a certain expense is "marketing."

Final takeaways: Start early. Get it in writing. Never sign anything you don't understand (or haven't read). When in doubt, ask a lawyer.

Stacey will be a guest on Seed&Spark's Twitter Chat on February 23, 2016, at 11:00amPST.

Read more by

Stacey Davis

Stacey Davis is the owner of The Law Firm of Stacey A. Davis, LLC, an entertainment and intellectual property boutique firm, specializing in film, television, music, and book publishing. For more information on the Firm’s services, please visit staceydavislaw.com. You can follow Stacey on Facebook (/staceydavislaw), Twitter (@staceydavislaw) and LinkedIn. You can also reach Stacey at sdavis@staceydavislaw.com.

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