In the film industry, the phrase “chain of title” refers to the series of documents or agreements that prove the ownership right of the entire movie. The phrase is not a legal term, in that there is no statutory definition. But the idea the phrase captures is very much intertwined with the law, intellectual property and employment.

This article will outline what a chain of title is and the type of documents you will need to prove a chain of title in the context of a film production.

Copyright and the Film Industry

In Australia, the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) regulates copyright. Of note, Australia is also a party to several prominent international treaties dealing with intellectual property rights. 

Copyright provides the owner with the exclusive right to do certain acts with a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work, or a sound recording, cinematograph film, broadcast or published edition. An exclusive right will give a copyright owner the right to reproduce, communicate, make adaptions and enter into rental arrangements in respect of the work.

Copyright can subsist in each creative contribution to the movie, meaning that there are often some overlapping owners or authors of copyright to which exclusive rights exist. For example, copyright might subsist in:

  1. The soundtracks or music playing in the background. Copyright is likely to subsist in the musical score and the lyrics of the song.
  2. The story line of the film in question might be based on a book or well-known individual. The author or owner of the book may have exclusive rights in this.
  3. Famous paintings or branded products may feature either prominently or loosely throughout the film.
  4. The director or producer crafting the whole thing together may have exclusive rights.
  5. The writer, editor or costume designer of the film might be a contractor and have automatic copyrights attached.

Evidently, multiple individuals and works come into play when making a movie. For the producer or the production company to have legal rights to sell the film, they must establish that they have rights to use all the works. If they don’t, they will be infringing someone’s automatic rights to copyright and face a claim brought against them. It’s then essential to establish a chain of title before the sale and distribution of the film.

Documents Involved in a Chain of Title

Many documents are necessary to determine a clear chain of title, including: 

  1. “Clearing Copyright” by an Artwork Reproduction Licence: If you plan on using an artwork in your film, you will need to gain clearance or permission from the owner before doing so. To obtain permission, you will need a licensing arrangement. 
  2. Location Release Form: If you plan on shooting on private property, you may need a location release form. This will prevent issues such as trespass and other indemnity issues. You may also require a location release form in the course of filming on public property.  
  3. Music Commission or Music Licence for Film: If you plan on having a musician, band or composer produce something specifically for your film or using an existing song, it will be important to have appropriate agreements in place.
  4. Option and Purchase Agreement or Licence for Existing Work: If you plan on acquiring exclusive or non-exclusive rights to base the film on an existing book, play or otherwise.  
  5. Crew and Cast Agreement: If you intend on hiring staff on a contractor basis you are going to want to ensure that copyright vests in the relevant film production company.

Key Takeaways

There are a number of legal issues filmmakers should consider. A chain of title is a series of documents which protect a producer or filmmaker from competing rights. Without an appropriate chain of title, film producers subject themselves to an increased risk of liability for infringing other people’s rights. If you have any questions or need assistance drafting crew agreements, releases or clearances, get in touch with our IP and employment lawyers on 1300 544 755.  

Esther Mistarz

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