MGM Countersues "Road House" Screenwriter in Copyright Battle Over Remake Rights

MGM Countersues "Road House" Screenwriter in Copyright Battle Over Remake Rights - Getty Images/Prime Video via Photo Source: Getty Images/Prime Video via

MGM Studios has launched a countersuit against David Lee Henry, the original screenwriter of the 1986 film "Road House," who writes under the pseudonym David Lee Henry. The conflict, unfolding in a California federal court, stems from a dispute over the copyright of the screenplay that inspired the beloved movie starring Patrick Swayze. MGM, backed by parent company Amazon, is challenging Henry's claim that he has the right to reclaim ownership of the screenplay through a copyright termination notice.

Henry's legal actions began in February when he attempted to block the release of MGM's "Road House" remake, alleging copyright infringement. He argued that MGM refused to license his screenplay after he reclaimed the rights. This legal move is part of a broader pattern where authors from the 1980s are fighting to regain control over their creative works, with similar disputes involving major franchises like "Predator," "Terminator," and "Friday the 13th."

In its countersuit, MGM asserts that Henry misrepresented himself as the sole author of the screenplay when it was, in fact, a work-made-for-hire created under his production banner, Lady Amos. According to MGM, contractual agreements from the 1980s explicitly state that Lady Amos, not Henry, is the rightful author, thus nullifying Henry's current claims to the screenplay. MGM alleges that Henry and his lawyer, Marc Toberoff, engaged in fraudulent activities by misleading the U.S. Copyright Office about the true nature of the screenplay's authorship.

The original purchase agreements reveal significant payments from United Artists (acquired by MGM) to Lady Amos, totaling $350,000, underlining the studio's claim that the screenplay was a commissioned work. MGM argues that since Lady Amos was a properly formed corporate entity and not just a pseudonym for Henry, the rights were legitimately assigned to UA and cannot be reclaimed by Henry under copyright termination rules.

Section 203 of the Copyright Act of 1976 primarily governs authors' ability to reclaim rights to their works. This provision allows authors, under certain conditions, to terminate grants of copyright made by them or their predecessors in title. The law is designed to address situations where authors may have signed away their rights under terms that seemed reasonable at the time or when they might not have anticipated the future value or enduring popularity of their work.

Conditions and Process

1. Timing: The law stipulates that the termination of the copyright transfer can occur during a five-year window that opens 35 years after the date of the original grant. For works published after 1978, the window begins 35 years from the publication date or 40 years from the date of the grant, whichever is earlier.

2. Notice Requirements: To effectively reclaim rights, the author must serve an advance notice of termination to the current rights holders. This notice must be served at least two years, but no more than ten years, before the proposed date of termination. It must clearly state the effective date of termination and comply with specific legal formalities to be valid.

3. Majority Rule: If the work was created by more than one author, a majority of the authors (or their heirs) must agree to terminate the grant.

4. Exclusions: Importantly, the termination right does not apply to works made for hire. This is a crucial point in cases like Henry’s, where the contention often revolves around whether the work was indeed made for hire or if it qualifies as the author's personal creation.

In David Lee Henry's case, the core issue is whether the screenplay for "Road House" was a work made for hire. If it was, Henry would not be eligible to use Section 203 to reclaim his rights, as works made for hire are explicitly excluded from these termination provisions. MGM argues that the screenplay was created under such conditions, being commissioned and paid for by a studio under a work-for-hire contract via Lady Amos, a corporate entity.

In a related but separate issue, Henry has accused Amazon and MGM of using artificial intelligence to complete the remake amid an actors' strike, potentially violating collective bargaining agreements. This allegation has yet to be addressed in court.

Bridget Luckey
Bridget Luckey
Bridget studied Communications and Marketing at California State University, Long Beach. She also has experience in the live music events industry, which has allowed her to travel to festivals around the world. During this period, she acquired valuable expertise in branding, marketing, event planning, and public relations.
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