Aalmuhammed did not have a written contract with either Lee or Warner Brothers, but was paid $25,000 by Lee and $100,000 by Washington. The summer before the film's release, Aalmuhammed asked for a writing credit as a co-writer, but was turned down. When the film was released it credited him only as an "Islamic Technical Consultant."
Aalmuhammed subsequently applied for a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, claiming he was a co-creator, co-writer, and co-director of the movie. The Copyright Office issued a Certificate of Registration, but advised him that his claims conflicted with previous registrations of the film.
Soon after, Aalmuhammed filed suit against Lee, Warner Brothers, and others claiming copyright infringement (and other claims that are not relevant to this discussion). Aalmuhammed claimed that the movie was a "joint work" of which he was an author. Under the U.S. Copyright laws, a joint work includes "two or more authors."
So what is an "author" for purposes of a film? In the case of a novel or people who work together in a traditional way, like Gilbert and Sullivan, it is pretty easy to establish. The question the court was faced with was who in the absence of a contract can be considered the author of a movie? Unlike a novel, a screenplay often reflects the work of many screenwriters. How about the producer, the director, the star, or others? In a movie like the
Lion King it can be argued that the animators and the composers of the music were the authors.
The court differentiated between those who make creative contributions to a film and those with artistic control. The court acknowledged that everyone from "the producer and director, to casting director, costumer, hairstylist, and best boy," all contribute creatively to the film in one way or another. But, the court held that in the absence of a contract to the contrary, authorship of a film is limited to "someone at the top of the screen credits, sometimes the producer, sometimes the director, possibly the star, or the screenwriter someone who has artistic control."
Again, in the absence of a contract, the issue of joint authorship comes down to the intent of the parties to be co-authors. In Aalmuhammed's case, the court found that there was no way that anyone intended him to be a co-author of the film, given that he had no control over the film and that although he made significant contributions to the film, Spike Lee was not bound to accept any of his suggestions or incorporate them in the film.
Also, the court found persuasive the fact that prior to the litigation, no one, including Aalmuhammed, gave any indication that he was intended to be a co-author of the movie. Finally, the court found that Aalmuhammed offered no evidence that he was the "inventive or mastermind" of the movie. Thus, Aalmuhammed had could not claim a copyright in the movie.
The lesson here is a simple one: written contracts are necessary for all those who work on a film to ensure that everyone's interests, expectations, and understanding of their particular role, function, and credit is crystal clear.
By Mark Levine, President
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