by Hank Isaac
I have to begin this by saying, “I’m not an attorney.”
However, that does not indicate in any way that I can’t read, write, or think.
So I was invited to enter my web series pilot episode into an awards competition. All a-twitter, I started going through the online submission process. Everything was great until I got to their agreement/release. Which I actually read, by the way (more later on why you should always read those).
Oh, and out of some old-school and likely misguided sense of professional courtesy, I’m redacting names and all identifying marks about anything that isn’t me or mine. It won’t make any difference ’cause if you get where I was and read what I read, you’ll know anyway.
Threading off for a sec… Good screenwriters that we all are, we’re often admonished to not put WGA registration or Copyright info on our submitted works. It kind of makes sense. Like, we don’t walk into a meeting carrying an AR-15 and say, “I just carry this with me. No plans to use it.”
So, yeah, the reason not to put that stuff on the cover is, well, to just be one of the “cool kids.”
But as screenwriters, we’re not one of the cool kids. We’re really more like the wimpy kid on the playground and all the agents, managers, production companies, and competitions are the big bully who steals our lunch every day. If we complain to a grownup, we get beat up. If we resist, we get beat up. If we eat a humongous breakfast so we don’t actually need to bring a lunch, we get beat up. The endgame here is: We lose.
So I’m reading through this release and then come to the most dangerous wording ever written. I won’t paste it in here, but it can be found in various degrees of virulence in releases everywhere. Now bear in mind, I’m talking only about competition entries, not submissions to production companies, agents, or managers. Just competitions.
And the wording begins by having me agree to allow them to look at the work (this happens to be a produced product, not a screenplay), to show it on their website, and to show it to other people.
So far, so good.
But then they want to be able to edit it. Not merely show an excerpt (which is indeed a form of “editing”) but actually edit the work. Without qualifying that statement, it can mean they could create an entirely different version of my work and show that around town instead.
Oh, it gets better.
Then, they want me to grant them what’s known as “derivative rights.” This is essentially the right to take my work and create a sequel or prequel. Or they could take a scene and make an entire franchise from it. Or they could make a spin-off using one or more of my characters. Pretty much anything, really.
Reminder: This is just an awards competition!
Why are they asking for all this? According to them (from a brief email exchange) this is “standard language.” So in what universe is this standard language for a competition entry? They say they need “protection.” Protection from what? They’re asking to be able to use my work however they wish. Somebody please explain the “protection” here.
“Well, we use this same language in all of [hugely famous name]’s productions.” Fine. This isn’t a production, it’s an awards competition. And you invited me.
Why would I ever give you permission to mess with my work? Isn’t that sort of like inviting your friends over for dinner then presenting them with a bill at the end of the evening?
A few years ago [even more famous filmmaker] lent his name to a competition. I heard they received over 7,500 feature film screenplay entries. The winner was to have his film made and I think he could direct it, too. So as I read through the twenty-five page release – yes, a twenty-five page ENTRY SUBMISSION release – I finally got to the eightieth paragraph and, guess what, nearly identical language was there. I won’t copy it here, but the upshot was that they would own not only my screenplay, but also all derivative works. So I was going to have to give up all rights to the story, the characters, and anything that would ever evolve from them anywhere, forever. EVEN IF I DIDN’T WIN! That was the kicker. It wasn’t just for the winner, it was for EVERY SINGLE ENTRY.
I wonder how many entrants actually read the release they signed?
Now if you’re thinking, “Geeze, this guy is really paranoid,” I’d like to add that every time I encounter language in a release like this, I run the text past my entertainment attorney. I ask him quite simply, “Am I reading this the way I think I am?” And every time, he comes back with, “Yes, you are.”
When I question the language as I did in these two instances, the response I always get back – after all the meaningless reasons – is, “This is the language our legal department created.” No it isn’t. It’s English. It evolved over many centuries. Your “legal department” is making sure you are in the superior position every step of the way. It’s not a release, it’s a sacrifice. And a human one at that.
“You don’t have to enter the competition,” is often the next line I hear.
“Yeah, I know. I won’t. But you know you’re essentially daring people to enter, then punching them in the gut when they do.”
“It’s standard language.”
They try to call it a contract but it’s not. A contract is supposed to benefit all parties. Releases like this do not. Then – and this is one of my favorite parts – they say, “Well that’s what it says, but that’s not what it means.”
Listen, Bub, what it says is what it says. Push comes to shove, what it SAYS is what it MEANS. Wow! The nerve.
So, many people will tell you, “Man up. If you want to get your work out there, you have to agree to stuff like this.”
Really? How’s this, then, from my own recent (as in contemporary) experience:
One of my films, Lilac – Pilot Episode – “Getting the Point Across – has been an official selection in 53 international film festival and awards competitions with 37 awards for writing, directing, acting, cinematography, production design, costume design, original score, original song, and sound design, and 6 additional nominations – awards in the venues of WEB Series Pilot, WEB Series, TV Series, TV Series Pilot, and Short Form Dramatic Narrative. Seen in 87 countries, on 6 continents and in 9 different languages.
Never signed one single release like the ones I’ve described here.
The somewhat ironic part of all this is that the holders of power know that even when they misuse or misappropriate our work, we are truly powerless to do anything about it. “You can always sue us,” is their ongoing mantra. But the reality is: No we can’t. Anybody know how much it costs to mount a copyright infringement lawsuit? “Excuse me Mr. Lawyer, Sir, my name is David and there’s this really big guy… Goliath somebody-or-other… Well, let me tell you, he’s so big you can’t even see his head, it’s up there so high…”
And don’t think for a moment Goliath doesn’t know this. We’re dust and he’s got a bazillion vacuums just sitting on the shelf with nothing better to do.
…he shoves a fifteen-thousand-word release in our faces, often with the excuse that they’ve “encountered problems in the past.”
Would you buy a car if, in the buying, you had to sign away all rights to assert a claim against the manufacturer if, say, the car blew up while it was being driven and killed your mom or your kids?
To all competitions: Look, I’m asserting this is my work. Mine. I’m the owner and I have the right to do with it what I wish. I give you permission to look at it, share it with others, evaluate it, exhibit it in its entirety or a partial contiguous clip, and to use some or all of it to help advertise your competition now and in the future (cause I’m a nice guy and I like your competition). But I do not give you the right to show it for purposes other than for your competition or to make other films based on my film or my characters or their story or sell or otherwise transfer the ability to do that to anyone else in the entire universe forever.
And if you ask for that, you’re just not going to get it.
Hank Isaac is an independent filmmaker in the Seattle, WA area. Not only does he know right from wrong and good from bad, he knows excellent from meh…because that’s what his work has proven to be over and over – excellent. Check him out on IMDB