The Skinny On "Separated Rights"
It’s probably a sad commentary on my own curiosity that I’ve been hearing the phrase “separated rights” since 1995, but only really understood what they were about a year ago.
Separated rights sound kind of complicated, but once you look closely at them, you’ll see there’s nothing too difficult about it all. However, since one of our commenters who happens to be a Board Member (his last name rhymes with “Mawton”) displayed a shocking…I say shocking!…unawareness of one of the basic separated rights, I figured it was time for a brief primer. Mind you, this article is only about theatrical (i.e. movie) separated rights. The TV version will have to wait for another time.
First, let’s remind ourselves (because it’s been four whole days) that when we sell literary material or are hired to create literary material for the studios, we do so as a work made for hire.
As the de jure author of the screenplay, the studio would essentially hold all rights that come along with copyright ownership. However, writers have managed to carve out a few of those rights for themselves. They’ve separated those rights away from the large list of the rights the companies have not given up.
Before we get into what those reserved, or separated rights are, let’s first discuss who gets them.
In order to receive your separated rights in movies, you basically need to do one of the following:
- Write an original story (treatment) or screenplay and story, and receive “story by” or “written by” credit for doing so.
- Write a story (treatment) or screenplay based on underlying material (novels, plays, etc.), but create a substantially different story than the one contained in the underlying material, and receive “screen story” or “written by” credit for doing so.
- Write a story (treatment) or screenplay based on underlying material that you do not have access to (e.g. an out-of-print book).
Given those rules, you can see that the most typical way a writer receives separated rights is by being a credited writer on an original. Another important point is that separated rights are assigned for story authorship, not screenplay authorship. “Screenplay by” isn’t enough to get you separated rights. You need to either receive “story by” for an original or “screen story by” for an adaptation. Since the “written by” credit includes a credit for story authorship, that also qualifies.
Now that we know what you need to do to qualify for your separated rights, let’s look at what they actually are.
Publication Rights: You control the right to publish the screenplay and books based on the screenplay. The studios still have the right to employ a writer to create a novelization of the screenplay, but they must offer that job to you first, and even if you decline to write the novelization, they must still pay you a minimum fee.
Dramatic Stage Rights: This is the one Mr. “Mawton” forgot about. After the release of the film, the company has two years in which to produce a stage version of the screenplay. If they fail to do so, the writer now controls the right to produce a stage version.
Sequel Payments & Credit: If the company produces a sequel to the screenplay (for theatrical or television), the writers with separated rights receive WGA minimums for those sequels. In addition, the writers get a “Based on Characters Created By” credit for theatrical sequels.
Mandatory Rewrite: This one’s sort of a cool one. If you sell or option a spec, you must be offered the first rewrite. What’s interesting is that this separated right is obtained prior to the awarding of credit. Obviously, it ceases to be relevant once the first rewrite is complete.
Meeting With A Production Executive: Works on the same basis as #4. If you sell or option a spec and then do your rewrite, the company must let you meet with an executive before they fire you. This is the “right to grovel for your job,” so let’s move quickly past it to…
Reacquisition: I just wrote an article about reacquisition here, so follow the link for the full skinny on this separated right.
So, now you know. Go impress a lawyer. But more importantly, when you begin a new assignment or take a new job, ask yourself whether or not you’re going to receive separated rights. True, published screenplays aren’t exactly bestsellers, and it’s rare for films to be made into stage plays. Nontheless, it happens (see this new play for instance). What’s more, those sequel payments can come in very handy.