My Place in the Universe – this week’s favourite contract clause

Publishing people don’t ask for it. For them the world is enough. Admittedly they often ask for strange and ambitious parts of it – see my earlier post concerning my publisher’s wish to secure rights to sell my work in the McDonald and Heard Islands, Antarctic volcanoes inhabited by nothing more bookish than seals – but in the end they keep it terrestrial.

Several times now, I’ve had film people require me to give them the rights to my work ‘throughout the universe’. Okay, look at it from any practical point of view and that’s madness, but there’s a lot about it to like. First, it says to me that lawyers are confident we are not alone. That there are other sentient beings somewhere out there, and they’re making movies. Movies so good they could undermine the struggling film industry of Earth.

Second, it says that film makers see a market for my stories not just beyond these shores but beyond our planet, solar system, galaxy and indeed species. Who wouldn’t love to be an author of genuinely, literally universal renown?

But a friend and fellow novelist, Adam Ford, got me thinking yesterday about the physics of it. And here it is in perspective.

World rights? That makes sense. You need to be the only creatures on the planet with the right to make the movie.

Solar system rights? Well, okay, but we’ve looked closely enough to be pretty sure there are no other film-makers in the vicinity. Earth looks like the only planet set to make movies for the foreseeable future. (Though I’d love it to be different – imagine a Martian Tim Burton making ‘Earth Attacks!!!’) But supposing film-makers appear out of the blue on Neptune. They could ship a rocket-load of bootleg DVDs here in a matter of years, and we all know how long film development can take on Earth. So, I can agree to ruling out the solar system.

Galaxy rights? Here’s where the physics comes in. The nearest star, the invisible red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is around 4.2 light years away, ie, about 40 trillion kilometres. So the producers/distributors here need not be concerned about the bootleg DVDs. On the other hand, if the Proxima Centauri film team went to screen their movie of my book and pointed it right at earth, the visual image – albeit very attenuated – could reach here in 4.2 years. (It’d be a silent movie though – if sound could make it, which it couldn’t, it’d take 967,000 years to get here, travelling at its earth-typical speed. Okay, maybe they’d email it and the sound would be there once we downloaded the file onto our Proxima Centauri-compatible iPads …)

Of course, that supposes not only that film development is a cruise on Proxima Centauri compared with Earth and takes no time at all, but that the Proxima Centauri film team already has the source material to work with. Since it’s not presently possible for me to send the physical book 40,000,000,000,000 km in my lifetime, perhaps I transmitted it to them digitally. The signal would take 4.2 years to reach them but, if the book is at least 4.2 years old, they could conceivably have it already, while I’m about to ink the film deal back on Earth.

So, yes, earthling producers, you can have galaxy rights.

But universe rights? You want to stop film-makers currently outside the Milky Way from adapting this material, in case the end result causes problems for you? How far to the next galaxy? In the producers’ interests, I’m prepared to work to as narrow a definition as possible, ie, Milky Way satellite galaxies are not included in Milky Way (ie, galaxy) rights. So, the nearest galaxy outside our own is Canis Major Dwarf. How near? 25,000 light years.

That’s right. If I emailed or in some other cunning way transmitted my story to the film team over at Canis Major Dwarf, it’d take 25,000 years to get to them, and the movie would take 25,000 years to get back. Allowing the Earth-average 7 years development from book publication to movie screening, that comes in around 50,007 years.

If I can manage to live another 50 years, the story would by then have been in the public domain on Earth – ie, available free to any film-maker here who wants it – for 49,907 years. By that time, it’s also possible the current producers’ interests in the project may have waned.

So, I’m going to try to limit territories to galaxy rights in future. I think physics will back me up on that.

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4 Responses to My Place in the Universe – this week’s favourite contract clause

  1. Dan says:

    And yet I have the feeling that, somewhere on the edge of the observable universe, a silicon-based lifeform that dwells in the core of a dying planet is being sued for using the likeness of Mickey Mouse.

  2. Nick, we lawyers have to plan on a universe-wide basis. Like cockroaches, we plan to out-survive everything else and inherit your Proxima Centauri rights. A galaxy alone may not be big enough to pay our fees. :P

  3. Lynne Lumsden Green says:

    They know something we don’t know? That would explain a lot; Tim Burton is an alien.

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