Back in November, one of the news round-ups mentioned that there Hummingbird working on a sequel to It’s A Wonderful Life. With Paramount contesting the sequel, I want to take a look at the mess and how to avoid it.
With It’s a Wonderful Life, the problem stems from a clerical error; the movie’s copyright wasn’t renewed properly, sending the movie to the public domain. The owners, Republic Studios, managed to regain most of the rights through backdoor methods that allowed them to control who could show it and at what price. The short version, the film itself is in the public domain, but the story and the music are not. The question that a court may have to decide is how much It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story depends on the copyrighted story.
Before I continue, I want it made known that I am not a lawyer, not do I play one on TV. This article is all from a layman’s point of view and isn’t legal advice, even if it sounds like it.
The first thing when adapting a work is to find out who has the rights to it. If the work is old enough, it’s in the public domain where anyone can take it. As a rule of thumb, if a work is older than Disney’s “Steamboat Willie”, it is very likely in the public domain. Works by Shakespeare are definitely in the public domain, as are myths, legends, and fairy tales. To verify, sites like Project Gutenberg can be helpful. That Romeo & Juliet alternative universe rom-com* where he’s the son of a necromancer and she’s the daughter of vampires can be made with no rights issues at all.
More recent works, though, have owners who expect payment when someone else plays in their sandbox. Research skills pay off here. First thing is to find out who holds the rights. Sometimes it’s easy; a Star Trek adaptation has to go through Paramount to be made. Sometimes, it’s not. It is the rare company that survives a hundred years. Studios like RKO, Orion, and United Artists have gone under, leaving entire libraries to be picked over. With UA, MGM bought most if not all of its assets, including the 007 franchise. It is a matter of research to find out where the movies have gone. This is where It’s a Wonderful Sequel is running into problems. Both studios can rightfully argue their sides; the film itself is public domain, provided that it is not shown in its original order. The sequel, and any other movie, could very well use images and scenes out of context as flashbacks and not run afoul of the copyright.
Once the rights owner has been found, it’s time to convince them that the adaptation should happen. The easiest way is sums of cash, or, as it is better known, a licensing fee. The owner sets the fee, but could be negotiated down. If there’s no agreement, no adaptation. A possible alternative is to convince the owner that they want to produce the adaptation themselves, with the adapter at the helm of the work. This method works best when remaking a movie, but can also work in the comics industry. This is what I expect the outcome of the dispute between Hummingbird and Paramount to be, an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed sum that allows It’s a Wonderful Sequel to go ahead.
If the rights owner says no, that’s not the end of the adaptation. Unless the new work relies heavily on established canon, changing details such as character names, setting, and even genre may be enough to make the former adaptation look original. This process is, essentially, “filing off the serial numbers”. Done well, no one notices. Done poorly, and the work gets called a rip-off of the original work.
Let’s take a hypothetical** example. I want to create a dark and gritty remake of BJ and the Bear, setting it in a post-apocalyptic America where BJ and his mutant chimpanzee deliver needed supplies through blighted wastelands to the last remnants of humanity living in fortified towns and cities, getting past corrupt warlords who want the goods for themselves***. The original owners of BJ and the Bear are easy to find – Glen A. Larson and Universal. The two still have a working relationship as of the Battlestar Galactica remake. All I need to do is convince both parties that I can make it worth their while to license the rights to me. Simple, no?
Not so fast. BJ’s main adversary in the remake, Warlord Lobo, is based on a character that got his own spin-off. If I want to use Lobo, I need to make sure that his character isn’t stuck in some sort of rights limbo. The problem has cropped up; The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man were both set, at least partially, in New York City. However, Marvel licensed Spider-Man and his supporting cast to Sony Pictures, who isn’t about to give up the wall-crawler anytime soon. Both Marvel and Sony negotiated to get the Daily Planet into The Avengers, but, ultimately, the building wasn’t there. Marvel is running into a similar situation with the next Avengers movies with Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch. Fox has the rights to all characters related to the X-Men, including mutants. Quicksilver and the Scarlett Witch not only are mutants but have worked alongside Magneto in their villain days. Marvel is skirting the problem by not mentioning the m-word (“mutant”) in the movie. However, there has been a massive crossover of rosters between the two teams; other X-Men who have been Avengers include the Beast and Wolverine.
The issue of rights doesn’t affect just movies. The Battletech game has what players have come to call The Unseen, thirteen BattleMechs that could no longer made as miniatures or be used in artwork as a result of a rights dispute between FASA and Harmony Gold. Both companies had licensed the mecha designs; Harmony Gold through the respective studios of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Fang of the Sun Dougram, and Crusher Joe as part of Robotech, FASA through the design studio, Victor Musical Industries, for BattleTech. The case was settled out of court; FASA might have been able to win except the cost of fighting the case became too high for the company to justify. The loss of the Unseen meant redoing several books and creating new minis for the core game and led to the Clan Invasion.
In my hypothetical example, the competing rights issue doesn’t come up. Glen A. Larsons Productions and Universal are still the people to talk to about Lobo. However, if the word is no, I can make changes to remove the BJ and the Bear markers from the project. Keeping the post apocalyptic setting, I can change Bear into a horse that CJ rides. Instead of delivering supplies, CJ delivers news through the wastelands to the fortified towns. Or, since the new project is a little too close to The Postman for comfort, I change the setting to space, where CJ and his sidekick alien buddy try to make ends meet in their dilapidated space freighter while Space Admiral Lupine hunts them down for crimes they may or may not have committed.
In short, check the rights situation. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes it’s not. When in doubt, rework to avoid legal entanglements.
Next week, 2013 in review.
* Yes, Romeo & Juliet is a tragedy. That didn’t stop Gnomeo & Juliet.
** At least, I hope it’s hypothetical.
*** If someone reading does do this remake, I would like on-screen credit, please.