Warner Bros. Buys Reddit Short Story…But Who Really Owns The Content?

Author James Erwin scored big when he sold the movie rights for “Rome, Sweet Rome,” a series of short stories that he wrote on Reddit.com about a group of U.S. Marines that travel back in time to fight the Roman Empire, to Warner Bros.  But the deal, which Warner Bros. is referring to as “exclusive” brings up a lot of questions about who really owns the content and whether Erwin really was in a position to sell.

Eriq Gardner of Hollywood Reporter pretty much sums up the controversy in one single question, “Warner Bros. aggressively snapped up rights to this story upon seeing it, but does the studio really hold exclusive rights to a film adaptation?”  After all, Reddit’s User Agreement explicitly states the following:

“…you agree that by posting messages, uploading files, inputting data, or engaging in any other form of communication with or through the Website, you grand us a royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, enhance, transmit, distribute, publicly perform, display, or sublicense any such communication in any medium (now in existence or hereinafter developed) and for any purpose, including commercial purposes, and to authorize others to do so.”

By posting the “Rome, Sweet Rome” stories to Reddit Erwin therefore gave over the rights to Reddit.  Reddit, according to their User Agreement, has clear permission to adapt the stories and basically do anything they want with them, from making their own movie to licensing anyone else to create a movie using the story.  So how can Erwin sell Warner Bros. “exclusive” rights?

Gardner also brings up the fact that other Reddit users, aside from James Erwin, made suggestions that could ultimately find themselves included in the final story if and when Warner Bros. does turn it into a film.  In fact, the story was born thanks to a question from a different Reddit user who asked, ‘Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion of MEU?’ So now we’re dealing with a story that is somewhat of a collaborative piece.  Did Erwin and Warner Bros. take that into consideration when they penned their deal?

As the guy that came up with the concept for “Rome, Sweet Rome,” odds are that Erwin would be most likely to win in a battle over who owns the concept.  Additionally, once he writes the screenplay (outside of Reddit) he will be able to copyright that.  However, until that happens is there anything stopping others from using the content that he posted to Reddit and turning it into a screenplay themselves?  If Reddit’s policy has anything to say about it, there’s not.

Reddit’s copyright agent, Jerry Birenz said that this case raises an “interesting issue” and that surely several different sides could legally claim rights to the story, yet a Warner Bros. spokesman still told the Hollywood Reporter that they stand by the fact that Warner Bros. “has obtained exclusive rights to Rome, Sweet Rome.”

Most of the stuff that we post online these days is just for fun or for personal use and copyright isn’t so much of an issue.  However, if you are dealing with property that you created, whether it be a story like James Erwin’s, photographs, animation, video or anything else, it’s important to keep these licensing issues in mind as things can get pretty tricky.  What’s your take on the story of Warner Bros. and “Rome, Sweet Rome?”  We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.  Oh, and while your here, check out the fun fan trailer for “Rome, Sweet Rome” below.

Megan O’Neill is the resident web video enthusiast here at Social Times.  Megan covers everything from the latest viral videos to online video news and tips, and has a passion for bizarre, original and revolutionary content and ideas.

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