Thursday, April 11, 2013

Derivative? Who You Callin' Derivative?

We're taking a break from our tour of John Q. Penman's contract this week to talk for a moment about Derivative Works.

The author of a copyrightable work is also the exclusive owner of the right to create derivative works based upon (copyrightable elements of) the original.

In copyright and publishing parlance, Derivative Works are any and all works (in all forms and formats) based on or arising out of an original creative work, as well as situations, themes, characters, worlds, and places featured in the original work.

This covers a lot of territory.

Sometimes, derivative works are easily spotted. Sequels, for example, are always derivative.

A screenplay about the character "Hermione Granger" (as created in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series) is derivative of the Harry Potter series.

A comic book about the adventures of Wesley Crusher's great-nephew is also derivative, even though Wesley Crusher never had a great-nephew in Star Trek: The Next Generation. If the comic is set in Roddenberry's world, it is derivative.

A movie about a cloned Imperial trooper who fled his battalion rather than fighting in the Clone Wars is derivative of the Star Wars saga (assuming we're talking about "those" Imperial troopers and "those" Clone Wars) even if the individual characters whose story we follow never appeared in the Star Wars universe. The reason? The world George Lucas built belongs to him - and so do all derivative works based on his creations.

Does that mean Lucas can stop anyone from creating space operas about cloned soldiers? No. (And I'm sure you'll all sleep easier for knowing it.)

Derivative works must be based upon copyrightable elements of the original work. You cannot claim that a work is "derivative" if the only shared elements are non-copyrightable archetypes.

For example:

A novel about Luke Skywalker's dentist is probably derivative.

A novel about a dentist stuck on a lonely outpost planet? Probably ok (but please don't name that planet "Tatooine")

The difference? One references a copyrighted world belonging to someone else. The other is built on archetypes to which no copyright attaches.

The concept of derivative works, by definition, raises the spectre of "fan fiction" - and the literal legal response is this: derivative fan fiction is copyright infringement if the author didn't grant permission for its creation. That's the law. It isn't "fair use" (with some rare exceptions too technical to dive into here) - even if it's done "in good fun" and even if no money is made on the endeavor. People can - and do - argue all kinds of points on this topic, but it doesn't change the law. It is what it is.

Forcing the lid back down on that particular wiggling can, let's move on to the author take-away for today:

It's vital to understand "derivative works" because most publishing contracts mention them in one context or another (and sometimes, more than one).

The bottom line for authors: retain control of your rights to derivative works. Do not give them away to the publisher, or to anyone else without adequate compensation separate from what is offered for publication of the original work.

We'll look at derivative rights again next week, but that's the short-form introduction. (And please ignore the worms peeking out of that can.)
 Posted by Susan Spann  
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books, July 16, 2013), the first novel in the Shinobi Mystery series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. 

6 comments: said...

I wouldn't think about retaining rights to derivative works, but now I will. Thanks for the great, helpful advice, Julie.


Susan said...

I'm glad I could help, Julie! Sometimes contracts can seem overwhelming, but the more we know the better we can protect ourselves and our work, for sure.

Michael said...

Susan really knows her stuff. She recently held my hand through contract negotiations with a publisher for my first novel, Double Dare, which will pub in September. She not only clued me in about derivative works, but helped in countless other areas. Thanks again Susan!
Mike Madigan

Mark Noce said...

Wow, there's a lot to know. Thanks for the informative post:)

Stephen Tremp said...

Thanks for the explanation of what constitutes a derivitive. I stay away from anything that may infringe on a copyright. Better safe than sorry.

Chiseled in Rock said...

Thanks Michael! I can't wait to hear that your novel is out - I'm looking forward to reading it!

Mark and Stephen, thank you for your comments, too. It makes me happy to know my posts are helpful.