Not a Spike Lee Joint? Issues in the Authorship of Motion Pictures Under U.S. Copyright Law

Posted: 11 Oct 2001

Date Written: October 4, 2001


Motion pictures are generally highly collaborative works, containing many different creative contributions. In the United States motion picture industry, most of those contributions are created as works made for hire for an employer or commissioning party, simplifying potential questions as to rights and obligations among the contributors under copyright law. Occasionally, contributions are created without documentation and outside of a potential work made for hire relationship, giving rise to issues as to ownership of copyright. In one recent case, involving the motion picture "Malcolm X," such a situation arose. The court in that case addressed those issues by creating special requirements for motion picture joint works.

This Article reviews fundamental copyright law concepts of authorship both as to individual author works and as to works where there are multiple authors. It reviews existing law concerning the role of creative control and fixation in relation to authorship determinations and concludes that an individual who contributes or actually controls the creation of minimally creative expression is an author under U.S. copyright law. Copyright law addressing various types of multiple author works, such as derivative works and collective works, may apply to certain contributions to a motion picture, but Congress and commentators have assumed that a motion picture is primarily a joint work among its primary creative contributors. Professor Dougherty criticizes recent judicially created limitations on joint work determination and suggests that courts or the legislature should reconsider the consequences of such a determination in the context of highly collaborative, multi-author works such as motion pictures.

Next, this Article considers various contributors of creative material to a motion picture, including producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors, performers, production designers and other designers, composers and directors, applying copyright concepts to those contributions. Many of those participants in the creation of a motion picture contribute works of authorship. The Article addresses certain special problems in motion picture authorship, including the relationship between the screenplay and the motion picture and the question of whether performers are authors under U.S. copyright law. Professor Dougherty concludes that, although the relationship between a motion picture and its screenplay will often be uncertain, the motion picture will most likely be considered a derivative work of the screenplay, and that certain components of an actor's performance should be considered copyrightable works of authorship. He also concludes that, under the judicially developed joint work rules, most contributors of authorship to a motion picture will not qualify as coauthors.

The Article reviews motion picture authorship under international law and the law of some countries outside the U.S. Internationally, there are a variety of different approaches to motion picture authorship and the ownership of economic rights in a motion picture. International law also establishes a default rule under which there is a presumptive waiver of certain exploitation rights by many creative contributors.

Finally, the Article considers what should be the default rule governing the rights and obligations among the contributors to a motion picture in the absence of work made for hire or contractual arrangements. Professor Dougherty argues that generally in those situations, courts should apply a liability rule rather than a property rule; that is, grant economic compensation but not injunctive relief. An appropriately structured joint work rule might be the most appropriate liability rule, but, in view of the restrictive conditions that courts have placed on joint work determination, the Article concludes that an implied license will in many cases be the most likely and most appropriate liability rule.

JEL Classification: K1, K2, K3

Suggested Citation

Dougherty, F. Jay, Not a Spike Lee Joint? Issues in the Authorship of Motion Pictures Under U.S. Copyright Law (October 4, 2001). UCLA Law Review, Vol. 49, October 2001. Available at SSRN:

F. Jay Dougherty (Contact Author)

Loyola Law School (Los Angeles) ( email )

919 Albany Street
Los Angeles, CA 90015-1211
United States
213-736-1461 (Phone)
213-380-3769 (Fax)

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics