Asked & Answered: Co-authors, who owns what?

Q:  I have written a multi-award-winning screenplay and feel, after many rewrites, it's getting close to being pretty good.

My question is about ownership: The screenplay was based on my novel, partly coauthored by a friend, who did about 10% of the work and storyline creation.  How would my friend be compensated, and would I be doing the right thing by signing an agreement saying I own the rights to this screenplay?

A:  When co-authors join together to create a single work ,  it's  called a work of “joint authorship”. Ordinarily, Joint Authors are equal owners of the work, and share equally in the proceeds from exploitation of the work.   So, absent some other agreement, the co-authors are each  entitled to half of the rights fees paid in relation to the book.

So, while it's true that you own the rights to the screenplay, the screenplay is based on the underlying novel, in which you're only a half-owner.  Now, if you try to sell your screenplay, you can probably allocate some portion of the money to the ‘underlying rights' (i.e., the novel) which you'll share with your co-author, allocating  the balance to the screenplay, but your co-author may not agree with your allocation, and could make trouble for you in the form of a lawsuit, or just embarrassing calls to the producers, etc.

My suggestion is to have a candid discussion with the co-novelist now… and work out the percentages on both the novel, AND your screenplay.  You'll definitely need to have a formal, written contract drawn up to memorialize things.  Otherwise, you will find it very difficult to sell your screenplay.   Producers always insist on a “clean” chain of title… so you'll need to clear this up as soon as possible.

This situation is the reason that it's so important to have a collaboration agreement in place before you begin working in earnest with another writer.  The collaboration agreement could have addressed this very situation, or at least the “what if my co-writer doesn't pull his share of the weight?” question.  An experienced entertainment lawyer can draw up a collaboration agreement very quickly.  It's well worth the investment.  Fixing these situations after-the-fact is always more costly and time consuming.

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.


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