Imagine the epic film trilogy Jurassic Park never made it to the silver screen, or A Series of Unfortunate Events was never brought to life. In fact, such fates nearly plagued numerous beloved films and television programs because of a simple, or not so simple, clearance that must occur called “chain of title”. Chain of title may sound like a dull formality that should be left behind the scenes. In reality, chain of title is a process of paramount importance that everyone pursuing creative endeavors should be aware of.
Chain of title refers to the documents that establish ownership or propriety rights to intellectual property. This encompasses a wide array of documents that establish the origin and transfer of rights pertaining to the film or television program. Every aspect of a project has to be cleared for use, such examples include buying the script, licensing music, or ensuring that all professionals creating new material on a project are work-for-hires such that all of the rights to their work automatically falls to the owner of production. This paper trail protects the production from a world of trouble. When attempting to create a film without proper chain of title; chaos, annoyance, and unnecessary interruptions may arise. The most common issues include lawsuits seeking damages or worse, injunctive relief which could lead to the complete cessation of the project.
At this point, it's probably obvious that chain of title is extremely important. So how does someone ensure a clean chain of title? Simply enough, the answer is to check the chain of title and work with an attorney to confirm that the rights were properly transferred or assigned. This may require a complete review of all documents related to the project, including but not limited to copyright searches with the U.S. copyright office, letters of assignment, collaboration agreements, writer for hire agreements, and more.
Going back to the Jurassic Park and A Series of Unfortunate Events examples, both projects originated as literary works, the origin of the chain of title being with the authors that published and registered the works. In the case of A Series of Unfortunate Events, the film rights were purchased by Paramount Studios and thus transferred from the original author, Lemony Snicket aka Daniel Handler, to Paramount. When moving to a television form of the content, Paramount retained the film rights and assigned these rights to Netflix to create and distribute the series. Having checked the chain of title and following it as it went along allowed for a smooth transition of rights that led to the incredible end products. Without proper chain of title, these projects would not get made.
The importance of chain of title is apparent. There is no such thing as diving too deep when it comes to checking for proper chain of title, not only to ensure that those entitled to their rights maintain them, but also to avoid the headache that comes with an improper chain.
This article is not meant to be considered legal advice and should not be taken as such. If you have questions related to keeping a clean chain of title, reach out to my office at pittentertainmentlaw.com, [email protected], or (424) 202-4239.