Last November, we addressed (Episode 129) the legal controversy between Victor Miller, the screenwriter of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), and Sean Cunningham’s production company. For a brief recap, US copyright law permits authors to unilaterally terminate their copyright licenses and assignments after 35 years. Congress designed this law specifically to give authors a second chance to negotiate financial terms for their works. Miller took advantage of this provision, like many other authors of late including Stephen King. Instead of re-negotiating, however, Cunningham sued Miller, claiming the writer’s termination was not actually within his rights.

The central issue in the dispute is whether Miller assigned his rights in the script to Cunningham, or whether Cunningham commissioned Miller to write the script as a so-called “work made for hire.” A legal analysis explains that “[a] work for hire is deemed to be ‘authored’ by the one who does the ‘hiring’” rather than the literal author. If Cunningham is correct, Miller is not entitled to terminate his assignment. However, Miller steadfastly maintains that he wrote the first draft screenplay “on spec.”

a long, bloody trail still lies before Miller

According to court records, Miller and Cunningham entered into a written agreement on June 4, 1979 that paid Miller approximately $9200. Meanwhile, FRIDAY THE 13TH would become the 18th highest grossing film of 1980, pulling in nearly $40 M at the box office. However, Miller recently produced new evidence, threatening to split Cunningham’s claims apart. Even more interesting, however, horror legend Tom Savini might be involved in the reanimation of Miller’s claims.

Miller recently produced new evidence, threatening to split Cunningham’s claims apart

Cunningham’s assistant spoke with Savini on May 22, 1979 about his potential participation on the eventual film, according to a memo she sent to Cunningham. If nothing else, the memo is notable for referring to Savini as a “very gentle soul,” while also noting his specialization for “prosthetic faces, limbs, and gore.” Amusingly, Cunningham’s assistant noted that Savini, whose special effects work is now legendary, “[s]eems to know what he’s up to.”

Most importantly, however, the memo notes Savini’s request for a script for Friday the 13th, along with the assistant’s message that she would provide him with the “first draft.” A letter to Savini dated May 23rd states, “I am enclosing the first draft of FRIDAY 13 [the working title at the time], as per our conversation yesterday.” Nevertheless, a long, bloody trail still lies before Miller.

Savini … “seems to know what he’s up to.”

First, the judge must consider whether to accept this new evidence, since it came to light so late in the case. Second, the judge must then decide whether Miller should prevail as a matter of law, or whether a trial is necessary to ferret out the exact details and circumstances of the script’s creation. Even if Miller does prevail, there is every reason to believe Cunningham’s lawyers will appeal, rather than pay out some more of the $800 M in box office gross (adjusted for inflation) that the franchise earned to date. Either way, we will keep you updated as new developments come to light.