Copyright/Licensing Attorney

  • Copyright/Licensing Attorney

Before a film hits theaters or a television show airs, attorneys must work out numerous contract stipulations that govern a company’s rights to exploit a creative property. In today’s increasingly connected technological landscape, attorneys face greater challenges in determining and anticipating all possible uses of a copyright license, wading into uncertain waters of social media, free streaming content, and paid on-demand distribution.


Attorneys working in the entertainment fields of film and television may serve many masters with competing but similar interests; small production companies, major studios, distributors, networks, and numerous other players each depend on copyright/licensing attorneys to protect their ability to profit from licensed creative properties. Attorneys are responsible for negotiating the licensing terms on behalf of their clients or employers, drafting contracts, and defending that license when a challenge arises.

Related to obtaining a copyright license, there are numerous considerations that the attorney or legal department must address. One of these is researching the origins of the license to ensure that the seller legally owns the copyright, without dispute. It is not unheard of for a company to license a property only to face a lawsuit from a third party claiming to own the copyright. Similarly, in the case of a film or television series, attorneys representing the licensee must perform research to ensure that all necessary clearances have been made for any copyright protected material that appears within the movie or show. For example, songs included in the soundtrack, brand logos that are visible in a scene, and even tattoos on Ed Helms’ face. 

In addition to research concerning the ownership of a creative property and the necessary clearances, attorneys on both sides of the negotiating table face challenges in determining the scope of the license agreement. Depending on the licensee’s intentions with the property, like theatrical release or network syndication, the specifics of the agreement will vary widely. However, it is becoming common and necessary to consider uses like creating branded social media pages, releasing YouTube content, streaming aired television shows online, or offering video on demand. As this is new legal territory for many attorneys and content producers, the negotiations can be especially complicated. There are recent examples of disputes related to explicit and implied consent in a license, the outcomes of which are continuing to pave new roads within the industry. Copyright/licensing attorneys play a vital role in determining the future of film and television.

Skills & Education

An attorney working specifically in the fields of film and television is well served to specialize in communication law, including a concentration on copyright law and contracts. A specific bachelor’s degree is not a requirement for most law schools, but undergraduates should pursue a major that is relevant to their career aspirations. More important during an undergraduate education is developing analytical and critical thinking skills, as well as training your information retention abilities. Many law programs look favorably on applicants with a degree in English, communication, entertainment business, or other area that requires the demonstration of strong written and verbal communication skills with a particular concentration on the student’s ability to form compelling arguments backed by research and evidence.

What to Expect

In general, a career in law can be stressful. In the entertainment industry, copyright agreements and contract negotiations carry hefty price tags and, therefore, significant pressure. This is not the career for the timid or those who prefer to avoid confrontation. Working in the entertainment industry also carries with it the inevitability of dealing with egos. On the job, an attorney must be a fierce advocate for their client or employer but also delicate and diplomatic in negotiating with third parties, like unions, producers, distributors, and studios. The industry is a tight group, and a deal gone bad or sour negotiation can endanger future relationships, thereby inhibiting the attorney’s effectiveness as an advocate.

Like any other career field in entertainment, outsiders have a difficult time breaking in. A recent graduate should expect to spend as long as three years networking and taking entry-level positions in legal departments before gaining enough experience and credibility to move up within their field. Employment opportunities are available for attorneys working as full-time staff for a production studio, distributor, television network, or similar company. Additionally, attorneys have the option of entering a private practice that caters to entertainment industry clients on a contract basis.


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