Why companies, not people, own the copyright to films

You are a novice screenwriter. A production company options your first script to produce the film. After the production company produces the film, will you own any portion of the copyright in the film, or will the production company own the copyright in the film in its entirety?

What is copyright?

The Copyright Act, section 3(1) says that copyright is “the sole right to produce or reproduce the work or any substantial part thereof in any material form whatever.” It may be a “literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work,” according to the Act section 3(1)(e-f). A film is a dramatic work. As the sole screenwriter, your rights would include:

  • Ownership of the work for your lifetime plus 50 years
  • Performing or reproducing your work for economic gain
  • Preventing others from altering, distorting or damaging your work
  • Preventing others from performing your work without payment to you
  • Receiving credit for creating your work

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects the expression of your work, not ideas or subject matter it contains. For example, J.K. Rowling is the owner of the copyright in the Harry Potter book series. However, Warner Bros. Entertainment owns the films. The extent to which other parties can create works based on the characters and world of Harry Potter has been hotly debated for years.

Should the creator register their copyright?

Copyright arises when a person creates the work, but it’s better to register the copyright with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. It’s a beneficial but inexpensive process, as it provides proof that you own the work in question.

Films are produced by more than one creator. Who owns the copyright in a film?

The Canadian Copyright Act assigns ownership of a film’s copyright to its ‘maker’. The maker is defined in section 2 as “in relation to a cinematographic work, the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the making of the work are undertaken.” The person or company that arranges and prepares the use of the production facilities and hires the actors to produce the film will own the copyright in the film.

The production company is the ‘maker’ for the purposes of the Copyright Act. The screenwriter wrote the script, but the production company provided the personnel and materials needed to produce the film.

Copyright is a complex area of law. Anyone working in a creative industry where copyright issues arise should seek the assistance of an skilled copyright lawyer in order to protect their interests.