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Writer's Ex-Partner Wins Recognition as Co-Author of Hollywood Screenplay

Professional writers often receive assistance and inspiration from friends, family and others, but to what extent, if any, should their contributions be recognised in law? The High Court addressed that issue in the context of a broken relationship between two creative people which yielded a Hollywood screenplay.

The screenplay, which told the story of an American socialite and opera singer, was written, in the physical sense of the word, by an established author and was made into a successful film. He accepted that his partner at the time, a professional opera singer, had supported and assisted him in the project. Following the end of their relationship, however, he denied that she was entitled either to recognition as the screenplay's co-author or to a share of the profits it generated.

Ruling on the matter, the Court noted that there was no dispute that the man held the pen with which the screenplay was written. However, when asking whether it was the product of a collaboration between him and his former partner, it was not enough simply to ask, 'Who did the writing?' Authors may collaborate in many ways, for example where one person creates the plot and another writes the words.

The former couple had worked closely together on shaping pivotal scenes in the screenplay and, in some cases, she contributed just as much as he did. She had the initial idea for the script and her knowledge of music and the operatic world meant that her creative role went far beyond that of a sounding board. They recognised and knew that they were on a path towards creating a screenplay and her input, often provided at his request, went well beyond mere editing of his work.

Attempting to separate their individual contributions to the script was like trying to unmix purple paint into red and blue. Nevertheless, the Court found that her role in its creation was authorial and, employing a broad-brush approach, assessed her contribution to the work at 20 per cent. She was therefore entitled to public recognition as the screenplay's joint author.

Although she had initially consented to her ex-partner's dealings with the script, she later withdrew that consent and he thereafter became liable for infringement of her copyright and moral rights in the work. The Court heard further argument as to the financial and other consequences of its ruling.

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