Copyright Infringement and Breach of Contract: the Tess Gerritsen Lesson

Tess Gerritsen has a couple of very interesting blog posts discussing her fight over what's hers regarding the movie Gravity.  (You may recognize Gerritsen more for her work as the author of the Rizzoli and Isles' mystery / thriller series.)

Read Garritsen's posts here - they are worth your time, Dear Reader:

Author's Breach of Contract Case Dismissed

The federal judge dismissed author Tess Gerritsen's case against Warner Brothers last week, but the dismissal is without prejudice to refiling.  Variety has an overview of what's just happened in the California breach of contract case.

I'm expecting Gerritsen to come back again; she's not writing from a position of defeat here.  She's lost a big battle, but she hasn't lost the war.

Contract Claims vs. Copyright Violations for Writers

Gerritsen sold rights to her story in a written contract.  When she believed that the contract had not been honored, she sued for breach of that contract.

The decision (assuming a new filing) will be based upon how the court reads the provisions of that deal as they jive with state law.  Part of her continued fight will be the legal connections between two corporations and what was transferred between them.

The rights themselves are her legal rights to the work she created.  The United States Copyright Office provides a nice summary.  These are protected by federal copyright law.

Here's something that I want to clarify, Dear Reader, after chattering about what was happening to Tess Gerritsen got a bit confusing in a conversation I had with a friend yesterday.

1.  You don't own a single "copyright" to your work.  There are several rights that make up "copyright law" and when those rights are violated, a federal claim for "copyright infringement" can arise.

2.  You can sell one or more of these rights for money.  That's how writers get published, of course.

Here's one thing I want to make clear to my friend and to you, Dear Reader: what exactly you are selling to the buyer needs to be clearly understood by both parties and made clear in your written agreement.  The contract will cover the rights that are described within it.

Here are some examples of copyrights:

  • First North American Serial Rights (FNASR)
  • First Print Rights
  • First Electronic Rights
  • Exclusive Rights
  • Excerpt Rights
3.  It is possible for someone to take your work and use it after you've made a deal with them (i.e., a written agreement) and be liable to you both for breach of contract (for the rights sold in the agreement) as well as violation of federal copyright laws (for infringing on your rights that were NOT included in the contract).

Much good luck to Tess Gerritsen in her breach of contract fight.