If you crowdsource a story, who owns the movie rights?

James Erwin had a writer’s dream come true this week: The author (and two-time Jeopardy champion) got involved in an open discussion on a forum at Reddit about whether the Marines could beat the legendary Roman legion in a fight, and then wound up selling the movie rights to this idea to Warner Brothers. But what did the movie studio buy exactly? Erwin’s story was written on the site over a period of weeks, with some Reddit users taking part by offering suggestions, and the idea behind the story appears to have come from another user. Not only that, but Reddit holds a (non-exclusive) license to any content that its users create while using the service. So who owns the rights to the idea that is now becoming a movie?

As the Hollywood Reporter notes in a piece looking at this question, the answer isn’t a simple one, which is probably why more movie studios aren’t in the habit of optioning stories that come from user forums like Reddit. Studios and TV networks in general are leery of anything that might involve a dispute over who owns the rights to a project, which is why scripts are guarded so carefully, and anyone involved in producing one has to sign NDAs and other legal waivers. For similar reasons, Warner Brothers apparently directed Erwin to stop contributing to the Reddit forum after they acquired the rights to the script. As he told the film-writing website ScreenRant:

Unfortunately, I have not been able to spend time on Reddit. This is not because I think I’m too big for my britches now. The Internet is a chaotic, give-and-take place –- and that creates nightmares for a lawyered-up industry based on locked-down IP rights.

Even without any further contributions from the crowd at Reddit, however, there is a potential legal issue with the idea behind the movie — which is being called Rome Sweet Rome. That’s because Reddit’s user agreement says that anyone who posts on the site (which is owned by media giant Conde Nast) gives Reddit a license to re-use and even sub-license their content. The site’s legal disclaimer says it holds:

[A] non-exclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, unrestricted, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, enhance, transmit, distribute, publicly perform, display, or sublicense any such communication in any medium (now in existence or hereinafter developed) and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, and to authorize others to do so.

These rights disclaimers are fairly common with web services, and in most cases, they are only used to allow those services to re-post content in different formats, or to modify a specific piece of content in ways that make it easier to store or display. Very few sites ever use this to license content against a user’s wishes, even though in some cases they have the power to do that: There was an uproar earlier this year about the terms of use for the Twitpic image-hosting service, for example, which gave the service the right to license the content for commercial purposes shortly after it signed a deal with a commercial photo service.

It’s not clear whether Reddit will try to assert any rights over Erwin’s idea (or whether other Reddit users might) but the possibility does exist — and that raises a potential issue for any writer who gets involved in creating a story in a discussion forum, as well as for publishers who sign those writers to licensing deals. Theoretically, Reddit could sell a similar idea to another movie studio, and be well within its rights. What about authors who talk about their works in progress — like John Green, who has become well-known for his YouTube videos and active community of readers, who often take part in discussions about his books before they are completed?

The bottom line, as Erwin put it in his interview, is that the chaotic nature of the web and the fluid nature of copyright online makes it difficult to take projects like Rome Sweet Rome and force them into the kind of rigid ownership model that movie studios like Warner Brothers prefer. And that won’t change until copyright or intellectual property law changes, to better reflect the way that such creative pursuits occur online.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and bloomsberriesl