The Perils of Co-Writing

These thoughts on co-writing first appeared on my official law firm newsletter. You can subscribe to receive this occasional newsletter (or find out how to contact my office) here. I promise, it isn’t spammy!

When two writers want to work together on, for example, a screenplay, you might think all they have to do is each give their writing the best shot until they finish. Right? Well, that’s certainly a great approach, but it leaves each writer open to risk: the risk that the project will go nowhere if they later can’t come to an agreement on who to sell the screenplay to, for example. Or what if one of the writers gives up on the screenplay? Can the other writer finish it and sell it by himself? It depends. Why? Because when two or more writers intend to collaborate in the creation of one single work of authorship, they are both owners of equal, indivisible shares of the work and its copyright, per the relevant provisions of the Copyright Act.

Co-writers and other co-authors are in effect joint authors under Copyright law. And as with joint ownership of real estate, a joint author cannot sell a jointly owned work to a third party without the consent of all the other joint authors who collaborated on that same work – or without sharing any revenue therefrom with all the other joint authors.

But each writer in a collaboration can’t obviously take, say, just 25% of the words in a jointly written screenplay and sell it by himself or herself. Yet, if both writers are not in agreement about who to sell their screenplay to, they can’t sell it at all. And so the screenplay ends up in a drawer somewhere, as a bad memory, while a friendship or working relationship is ruined.

Is there a way around the above conundrums? Or has copyright law doomed joint authors to the riskiest creative relationship ever? Good news: you don’t have to deal with all these risky what-ifs if you agree in writing how to resolve them in advance, by having all writers in a collaborative project sign the right collaboration agreement: one that all the co-writers involved can live with.

I just helped a client with a collaboration agreement some days ago. And I can do the same for you. It didn’t take very long at all.




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