Who Owns the Rights to a Film, The Production Company or Distributor_

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Who Owns the Rights to a Film Production Company or Distributor?

Film production, and the process of creating a motion picture work of art, is incredibly collaborative in nature. There are sometimes upwards of 100 people or more making up a film crew. Which includes professionals in lighting, camera operation, hair, makeup and costume design. Then there’s the screenwriter and the film director. And they may or may not be employed by the production company. So, who owns the rights to a film, the production company or the distributor?

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Intellectual property rights, specifically the copyrights which protect the creative works of all of those individuals that makeup the film crew, can be challenging to understand. Especially if you’re new to the process.

If you’re wondering, “who owns the rights to a film, the production company or the distributor?” The short answer is – both! But how can that possibly be?

Intellectual Property Rights & The Copyright

Under standard intellectual property rights, the copyright makes up the key component of protection for filmmakers. Although additional protections are given via patents and trademarks, too. 

According to U.S. Copyright rules, the creator of a work is technically the owner. But as said in the beginning, there is no single creator for a film. Therefore, the “work made for hire” doctrine was introduced just for film.

Work Made for Hire

This presents the capability for a producer, production studio, or entity to enter into “work made for hire” agreements with those contributing to the production of a film. Including the actors, camera crew and others.

Under a “work made for hire” agreement, those who provide the work release any ownership of such work that they provide to the producer, production company, or entity in which the agreement was made between.

Thus whomever hired the contributors to the film will retain the right of ownership to the final version of the film.

Rights of the Production Company

As long as a “work made for hire” agreement was entered into between each of the individuals that contribute to a film. As well as the production company that hired them. Then the production company will own the rights to a film.

However, in the event there isn’t a “work made for hire” agreement? Intellectual property laws stipulate that the rightful owner of the copyright would be the director.

As this individual is the “author” of the film and makes most every major decision about the creative direction of the project.

Distribution Rights

The rights to the film belong to the production company. But, the owner of intellectual property rights may grant a license to another individual or entity. In order to distribute the film or other ancillary products.

The actual rights that the distribution company or distributor acquires is based on the agreement made between the production company and the distribution company. 

Purchase Rights

Sometimes a distribution company purchases the rights to a film. And, in doing so, all rights move along from the production company to the distributor.

However, it is equally common for the original ownership to stay within the production company. While the right to distribution is granted to the distributor. 

In Summary

In the end, when we look at who owns the rights to a film, the production company or distributor, it could be one or the other or neither.

Generally it’s the production company who owns the rights to a film. But depending on how the chain of title progresses and what the contracts state, this could be different in some situations. 

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