Audiovisual Works and the Work for Hire Doctrine in the Internet Age

Schwab, John L.

Chris Carter was one of the most successful writers and creators of television in the 1990s. His works include "Millennium" and, most prominently, "The X-Files." Mr. Carter created "The X-Files" and was the program's 'showrunner,' meaning he either made or approved every creative decision associated with each episode—including the writing, the direction, the set design, the costuming and the editing. As is common in the world of audiovisual entertainment, Mr. Carter did not own the copyright to "The X-Files." This created a problem for Mr. Carter, since the commercial success of "The X-Files" made it a prime candidate for syndication. Syndication, also known as second run programming, is the most lucrative aspect of television production. The owner of "The X-Files," Twentieth Century Fox Television, sold the program's syndication rights to a separate Fox subsidiary, the FX Network. This original sale led to allegations of self-dealing. Fox subsequently resyndicated the program with a competitor, NBC Universal's USA Network. When Fox resyndicated, however, the studio claimed that the agreement with USA was not a new syndication agreement, but, rather, an assignment of the original agreement with FX. This distinction was particularly important for Mr. Carter because his employment agreement guaranteed him a percentage of each syndication agreement entered into by Fox. If the deal with USA was simply an assignment, Mr. Carter was due no portion of a lucrative contract. Mr. Carter promptly filed suit to enforce what he believed were his syndication rights.

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July 3, 2012