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Asked and Answered: Is changing the title, setting or character details enough to avoid paying for the rights?

Q: A playwright/filmmaker in the United Kingdom optioned a portion of my self published novel to develop into a play and short film. This playwright/filmmaker renewed the option twice over several years, with a final payment due at the end of the third year and a royalty/byline promised after production.  Both contracts were signed, witnessed and notarized with money exchanged and hundreds of e-mails/letters back and forth about the
progress, funding available, etc.

Last Jan. I received a letter stating there was no more money for the project and they wouldn't be able to renew again when the option expired.

Is it true that if only a ‘few paragraphs', title, and basic concept are used do the purchasers still have to honor the option and does it make a difference that I'm living here in the U.S. and they are in another country?   There was no specification in the contract as to how much or little they would use from the novel to make the play/film.

I recently learned that they received a grant and the project was made into a play/short film, and even entered into several contests. When I complained, they simply changed the original title, some of the character details and setting and told me they'd changed it so much they didn't have to pay me any more money or give me credit, especially when they'd only ended up using such a ‘small amount of my novel in the end'. Though my novel has an ISBN and copyright dating back to 1998, they made the comment that ‘since I had self published they didn't
consider me a ‘real writer' anyway.

A: It's not true that “a few paragraphs” can be used with impunity. Merely changing the title, setting or a few character details will not  render an unauthorized use non-infringing.  Where there has been a contractual relationship in the past, the existence of that contract is useful evidence in establishing that the defendants KNEW they'd need  permission to use the material (however much or little is the case).

The fact that a work is self-published is irrelevant.  The author of the work owns the copyright to his or her material, and using it without  consent constitutes copyright infringement.  Plain and simple.

The trouble is, where the alleged inf ringer is overseas,  suing  can be costly and inconvenient.   But, it is still worthwhile to consult with lawyers both here in the U.S. and in the infringer's home country to determine whether a lawsuit is feasible and worthwhile.

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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