What is this Chain of Title of which you speak?

Great question and there tends to be some confusion among first time film makers about Chain of Title so don’t feel bad for asking the question.

To put it simply, Chain of Title is the complete set of documents that establishes a persons (and companies are people too) right to take action with respect to a piece of property, in our discussion the property is a film, but can be anything including a passel of land, a building, an automobile, etc.  With any property the chain runs from the present owner back to the original owner of the property in question.

In entertainment, this means a whole slew of documents that establish that a producer/production company owns/controls the right to produce a whatever it is they are trying to create/sell.

The chain of title typically consists of a series of rights agreements between the creators of works on which the production will be based or assembled to create the final product.  OK, that wasn’t so simple, but this list will give you an idea:

  • Copyright registration certificate for any underlying material (ie, the screenplay)
  • Option for right to adapt any underlying work(s) (Stageplay, song, screenplay, life-story rights, etc.)
    • Yes, that means just because you read a book or play that you can’t adapt if for film without permission.  Heck, just because someone is dead still doesn’t give you a clearance to produce their life story.
  • Agreements with anyone (the writer or composer or lyricist or other contributors) hired to adapt the source material
  • Agreements with any additional writers hired to do re-writes, etc.
  • Certificates of authorship from any of those writers
  • Documentation on any option agreements
    • Evidence documenting that the option on the material was properly extended before its expiration
    • Evidence that the option was properly exercised before its expiration.
    • Documents transferring or assigning the rights granted under the option to the producing entity
  • Contracts with creative and production personnel stating that their work-product has been created as a “work-made-for-hire” and therefore belongs to the producer.  Strangely enough, this includes you, the producer.
  • Contracts with performers authorizing the use of their names, likenesses, biographies, etc., in connection with the exploitation of the project.
  • Releases for stock footage used
  • Releases for photographs or artwork used
  • Releases for props used
  • Releases for locations films
  • Releases for any music used in the scoring of the production
  • Crowd/Extra release forms
  • Trademark Clearances for any trademarks used in the film

…and the list can go on, but you get the idea.

A film is an assemblage of many things and you have to prove that you have the right to use ALL OF IT in your film.  Yes, even if you wrote the screenplay yourself.  It may sound silly, but you even need to transfer the rights of the screenplay you wrote to yourself as the producer/production company to have a clean chain of title.

Film distributors won’t agree to distribute a film without complete documentation.  They don’t want to risk getting sued because you used something in your film you didn’t have permission to use.

It’s best to start as early as possible documenting the chain of title.  No one likes to pop-out a release form or go all business-like when they are developing the idea for a production, but, trust me, it gets much more messy and difficult to try and do it later.  When you complete an outline, treatment, screenplay, etc, keep records and register your copyrights.  If you are working with someone else, PLEASE, have a written agreement that details your relationship and addresses ownership of the project.  Great projects have been lost to a fallout between friends and no formal terms on what happens to the work itself.

Oh, and nothing verbal.  It all needs to be in writing.  Its to everyone’s benefit… and you can’t put a verbal agreement in a file.

Yes, ultimately, the chain of title is a big folder containing copies of each and every document we just discussed… in chronological order.  And this documentation will be needed everytime that the project is sold or transferred to someone else.

Now the big question: Do you need an entertainment attorney to do all this for you?  Absolutely not.  You just need to be good at paperwork and organization, or have someone working for you that is.  That doesn’t mean you might not need one to handle certain steps along the journey.  Only a fool has himself for a client.