It wasn’t a shock when LeBron James showed up to a Lakers game on Halloween 2018 dressed as Jason Voorhees from the “Friday the 13th” horror films. James had previously called the series “one of my favorites” and posted an Instagram photo of himself dressed in Jason’s chosen head gear, a hockey mask.
But James was more than a fan. Days before his costume caught attention, it had been reported that James was interested in bringing the horror icon back to the big screen through his production company, SpringHill.
A reboot never happened. As King James was conquering the court, Jason Voorhees was stuck in one, the subject of a legal battle that has left the horror franchise in limbo.
“My feeling is there’s a lot of bad blood” between both sides, said Larry Zerner, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. He uses Twitter to update fans on the latest in the dispute between the screenwriter and the original producer, but he’s more than just an observer.
Before he became a lawyer, Zerner was a victim of Jason Voorhees.
A killer case
For half a decade, “Friday the 13th” has been stuck in a copyright dispute over who owns the original script, with the result, in part, affecting who can use that iconic hockey mask going forward.
Cue Zerner’s on-screen death.
In 1982’s “Friday the 13th Part III,” he plays a prankster named Shelly who, along with his friends, are attacked by Jason in cabins on Crystal Lake. When Zerner’s character is killed, Jason takes ownership of a hockey mask that Shelly had used to scare one of his friends. That accessory would go on to define the killer’s film legacy and play a key part in the case Zerner is now following.
“I love that my two passions intersect, copyright law and ‘Friday the 13th’,” Zerner said. “People love Jason; they want to see more.”
But the masked killer has been off screen since the release of director Marcus Nispel’s “Friday the 13th” in 2009.
On opposing sides of the conflict are “Friday the 13th’s” producer and director of the 1980 film Sean S. Cunningham, who also represents a group of investors, and Victor Miller, the first film’s screenwriter who has fought for control of his script after the copyright expired.
A court sided with Miller, but in interviews with CNN, Cunningham and Miller’s attorney reveal why Jason may not have hacked his way out of court just yet.
“Both sides are really dug into foxholes,” Cunningham said. “They’re not going to throw any grenades, but I don’t think anyone is going to call for peace talks.”
Who owns Jason now?
Deconstructing who currently owns Jason Voorhees offers a telling window into the copyright law affecting many beloved movie characters and why a court ruling that ended the dispute hasn’t exactly clarified Jason’s future.
After an appeals court upheld a lower court ruling in September, Miller, the screenwriter, was awarded the copyright for the script and characters associated with the original “Friday the 13th” film.
When Congress lengthened the term for copyrights in 1976, it threw a bone to creators of big-name projects by giving them an avenue to wrestle control of intellectual property away from producers and studios.
“It’s designed to give some of the heirs a bite of the apple to share in that extended term,” Aaron Moss, an entertainment lawyer who writes the blog Copyright Lately, told CNN.
But only creators hired as independent contractors were protected, not full-time employees of a company. The court concluded that Miller completed the “Friday the 13th” script for Cunningham as a contract worker.
“Now we can license a remake, prequel or even sequel motion pictures… provided such films do not use any additional copyrightable elements” said Marc Toberoff, a Malibu copyright attorney who represents Miller.
That’s where it gets complicated.
Miller may control the script and characters from the original movie, but not the title “Friday the 13th,” nor the content from sequels which includes the adult Jason and the iconic hockey mask that has defined him since Part III. (Jason’s mother was the killer in Miller’s original film).
Toberoff, who also secured rights to horror icon Freddy Kreuger and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” for the estate of Wes Craven, appears ready to walk a fine line as he pushes for a future project.
“Miller now owns the copyright to his screenplay, including sequel rights, but Jason can’t be portrayed as any older than in the first movie? Makes no sense,” Toberoff said. “Jason was very much a presence in Miller’s film. In fact, Mrs. Voorhees channeled Jason. And, of course, the first was all teed up for sequels.”
He is referring to a final scene where a young Jason leaps from the lake to attack the heroine.