DistributionWhy is 'Chain of Title' Essential for Your Movie?
May 24, 2021
If you’re a filmmaker, you’ve probably heard the legal phrase ‘chain of title,’ and that your film will need it, especially if you’re pursuing distribution for your film. But what is chain of title? And how do you get it?
Seed&Spark’s latest Lunch&Learn: Legal Advice for Indie Filmmakers — with entertainment lawyers Stacey Davis and Erika Canchola — covered many legal topics valuable to independent filmmakers. And the conversation touched heavily on chain of title as the legal foundation for any film.
What is one step independent filmmakers should take to protect themselves and their film?
Canchola says protecting the content is key: “If it’s yours, copyright it. If it’s somebody else’s, get that in writing (what the ownerships are).” And that includes contracts. “I’m a big proponent of having things in writing. If you have partners, making sure the partnership expectations are in writing.” This, she says, is the foundation of chain of title.
Davis echoes: “I find a lot of early indie filmmakers are scared to put things down on paper. ‘Oh we have a handshake deal, we talked about it.’ That in and of itself gives them enough comfort.” But she adds there shouldn’t be anything inherently intimidating about contracts: “Good fences make good neighbors, and good contracts make good relationships.”
So what exactly is chain of title?
Davis broke the concept down: “It’s basically a collection of documents that show ownership [of the film] is vested in one person or entity, and therefore they have the rights to control that project.” That chain of title can be important to any many groups interacting with your movie — including SAG and distributors.
Canchola adds: “You have to think you’re going to deliver this [film] to somebody who needs to see all the contracts, all the bells and whistles that they’re going to need to feel the comfort of exploiting this to the world.”
What if an independent film doesn’t have a clean chain of title?
Ignoring chain of title is risky — especially if you’re considering a wider release for your project. Davis says, “When you don’t have a clean chain of title, you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. You don’t have a copyright registration yet. You don’t have a signed agreement with the director. And therefore ownership and rights can be in question.” And if that happens, distributors will be reticent to work with your project — as it can be vulnerable to lawsuits and other complications.
Is a clean chain of title necessary for a little short film?
Canchola says it’s absolutely important for you or your production company to have a clean chain of title — even for a short film that may not be distributed. “You still need to own that content and have everybody who contributed to that sign something say so, because you don’t know what you’re going to do with it,” says Canchola, "You may end up using that as the backbone for something bigger [like a feature], and then it becomes part of your chain of title [for that project].”
Is copyrighting a script part of chain of title?
Copyrighting your screenplay (registering it at the lackluster copyright.gov site) is an essential part of chain of title. “It vests certain legal rights that you don’t have without a registration,” says Davis. Without it, “you have common law copyright rights but you don’t have statutory rights. That only comes with copyright registration.”
And registering the script with the WGA is no substitute. “It’s not a public record, the WGA registration,” says Canchola, “The whole point of the copyright is public notice, telling the world that you have copyright in your script.”
If you're interested in more advice from Davis and Canchola, watch the Lunch&Learn here. And if you're working on a project that may need an entertainment lawyer, we'd love to help.