Movies and Beyond: My Journey into IP

My journal into intellectual property begins with movies.  I have always been fascinated by them. How a combination of images and sounds can captivate audiences worldwide, never ceases to amaze me. This fascination led me to study every aspect of filmmaking.  This included how a scene is staged, the process where a director tells the actors where to go and how to move.  Indeed, when I was a freshman in college, the only career path I had in mind was one in film.

Now being the movie buff that I was, I’m sure you can imagine my excitement when I landed an internship for a feature film.  It was during my freshmen year of college, and when I applied, I never thought they would bring me on.  Though I was working long hours without pay doing tedious but unimportant tasks, I was happy to be on an actual set, watching professionals work. I was fascinated watching the director interact with the actors, telling them how to say a line and where to move in the scene.

On the production side, I worked with many Producers who were eager to give me advice and happy to mentor me on my career in the industry.  To my surprise, the most common advice I received was not to go to film school, but instead to study something practical, such as accounting.  I could then apply that practical skill to the film industry.

I then started to notice and found impressive how the producers worked as they handled the legal side of the production.  I remember signing a form agreeing not to speak about the production.  Staff was told that the film was titled one thing but was released under another to ensure that no information about the script or cast was leaked.  Additionally, some issues delved into the world of intellectual property.

Intellectual Property finds itself in the entire filmmaking process.  IP takes the forms of copyright, trademark, patents, and trade secrets.

A copyright protects an original artistic expression, such as a painting by an artist, a novel, and of course, a movie.  An example would be the film Iron Man, where the character Iron Man is a copyright, as well as the movie itself.  Even the music used in Iron Man would have a copyright, including a copyright in the recording of the music used and another in the composition of the song.  Copyright owners have the right to license their works.  Licensing is when a copyright owner allows a third party to use the copyright for a fee.

A trademark protects logos, words, phrases, or anything else that indicates the source of a good or service.  Examples of trademarks are the Nike swoosh or even the Netflix opening sound.  You often see trademarks in the opening of a movie, where film studios involved in the movie project their trademarked studio name and logo. Such an example is the iconic “MARVEL” opening of all of their movies.

For both Copyrights and Trademarks, it is not necessary to apply to the government to have a valid copyright or mark.  That is, a copyright exists as soon as the work is made, and a trademark exists if it meets all the factors (such as being distinctive and used in commerce).   However, registering your mark or copyright grants certain benefits.  For example, a registered copyright allows the owner to file suit for copyright infringement.

While I was being introduced to these exciting legal topics, I still had a few educational stops to make along the way.

From B-List Heroes to Franchise Staples

Considering that the people advising me to study something more practical were highly successful filmmakers, I obediently followed their wisdom.  As such, I made the switch from film student to accounting student.

As I made this change, I began looking at the business side of movies.  I found a reoccurring theme as I moved beyond box office figures and production costs: every time a new major release was announced, a swarm of IP issues came.  This included anything from getting rights to a song to product placement, which is a way companies advertise their products by placing them in movies and TV shows.

A song is expression that can be copyrighted.  Copyright protects creative artistic expressions from being used by others without permission.  Without copyright, the song could be used by others without getting permission from the owner. Product placement can be seen in Curb Your Enthusiasm, where Larry David consumes a Perrier.  Product placement concerns trademarks which identify the source for a particular product.  Owners of well-known marks sometimes pay a film studio to place a product under their trademark to help market both that brand, and the product itself.  The idea is that consumers will associate their favorite shows and characters with the trademarked brand and then buy that brand themselves.

As superhero movies became increasingly popular, I found more and more discussions about which characters would be included in a movie.  As a creative artistic expression that can be fixed, the character itself may be copyrighted.  Even more interesting, these discussions included which character would not be in the film due to another studio owning the copyright to that character.

Because of this, studios resorted to producing movies with lesser-known characters that they had the rights to.  This resulted in previously unknown characters getting an entire feature film dedicated to them, boosting that character’s popularity.  This is most prominent with Marvel Comics’ character Iron Man, who was once a “B-List” character.  This once-obscure character kickstarted the Hollywood juggernaut that is now Marvel Studios.

I found this particularly interesting as film studios had the challenge of making a movie with an unknown comic book character.  Since “B-List” characters typically have a small following, filmmakers were faced with the challenge of marketing a less popular hero.  The fact that certain characters are lesser-known means that studios can license their rights to use the copyright from their owners.  I found this to be an interesting aspect to filmmaking that further piqued my interest in IP.  After all, if IP could directly impact which character a movie is about, what else could it affect?

Intellectual Property: Shaping Futures and New Industries

As I continued my college career, I researched the cross-section of filmmaking and intellectual property.  During this time, I realized how significant intellectual property is.  Filmmaking is a collaboration of multiple artistic mediums.  Musicians compose scores, fashion designers create customs, visual artists add in special effects.  All these components may be subject to their own copyright.

It appeared that everything I enjoyed about movies touched Intellectual Property, be it the characters in the story or even the music.  More importantly, I was greatly interested in how IP could shape the entire movie itself, such as who to even write the story about.  Besides, the prospect of working on who gets to make the next Batman movie was certainly more exciting than a career in spreadsheets.

My experiences led me to determine that IP would be an exciting field to work in.  My interests in the area helped guide my decision to enroll in law school.  I could further study the impact of intellectual property on not only the things I love, but also in our society.  If intellectual property is already shaping a new internet industry, I can only imagine how much of a role intellectual property has in our futures.

Bryan Bott
Associate Blogger
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Class of 2024