Do you Have a License for That Easter Egg?

Movie Easter Eggs

Ernest Cline, the author of the encyclopedia of Easter eggs, also known as Ready Player One, was not shy about cramming in as many references to trademarked, copyrighted, and branded content as he could. We imagine Cline had little or no concern for permissions, and with good reason. A workload that would give every producer or entertainment lawyer sleepless nights.

This is simply because you cannot copyright the titles of movies, songs, TV shows, characters names or descriptions of logos etc. It was very easy for Cline to fill its pages with a plethora of pop culture references without infringing on intellectual property rights.

Film copyright

It is possible to trademark brand names and in some cases fictional names and places. For example, DC comics, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. trademarked the term “Gotham” back in 2013. However, trademarking does not make it illegal for someone to name these trademarks in their books. If you think about it, such a law would make any article describing any branded product illegal, which would be a disaster for everyone concerned.

An author can still fall foul to the law when using brand names, if the brand can show its trademark was infringed, diluted, tarnished or defamed for example. But Ready Player One kept its references very simple and unassuming. If there were any infringements, they were probably so minor they would unlikely to be followed up.

Ready Player One the Movie, a Different Kettle of Fish

The Easter Eggs in the Ready Player One the movie; now that’s a whole different ballgame.

When you are dealing with images, logos, music, and visual content, it is almost impossible to not stray into infringement territory. To turn the 2011 novel into the 2018 movie required permissions for every protected reference and visual in the film. As you can imagine, that’s a very complex job, and while producing the movie it did cause some adaption issues.

Warner Brothers & Ready Player One

Warner Bros. and De Line Pictures won an auction for the film rights to Ready Player One, and this instantly solved some permission issues. For example, Warner Bros. holds the rights to the DC Universe, so this removed any problems using references to Batman, the Joker, Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman and all the other DC superheroes. The company also controls the rights to Lord of the Rings through its subsidiary, New Line Cinema.

Not everything was this easy. In Cline’s novel, Ultraman, the giant alien superhero from the 1960’s series of the same name, was an integral part of the story. However, control for the rights to Ultraman has been locked in a long legal battle, so it was not possible to obtain the required permissions. Warner Bros. navigated this issue by using one of their own properties, the robot from The Iron Giant, to replace the Ultraman character.

Cline himself considered Ready Player One an “unfilmable book” as he was writing it. He was well aware that obtaining these copyright permissions would be borderline impossible. A huge credit should go to the production team for pulling off this massive feat and still make a brilliant film.

Photo by Maria Laura Antonelli/AGF/REX/Shutterstock (9473276a)
Steven Spielberg Ready Player One film photocall, Rome, Italy – 21 Mar 2018

With such a mammoth task at hand, it was must have been a huge relief when Steven Spielberg signed on to direct and produce. Spielberg is one of the most connected film players on the planet, and certainly opens a lot of doors for a project like this. Not only that, but he was the king of many 80’s and 90’s hits that were prime material for a project of this nature. However, Spielberg did not see it this way, and to prevent the film turning into a vanity project he refused to use references to his own filmography in the movie. One of the few exceptions was the DeLorean from Back to the Future which he produced.

Spielberg may be one of the all-time great directors and bring a wealth of knowledge and contacts to the table, but he cant do everything. An outstanding production team is just as important in creating a quality movie, especially one that brings the Ready Player One style challenges.

Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger
Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger with Steven Spielburg

Producer Kristie Macosko Krieger was charged with approaching the rights owners for permissions. A great deal of this responsibility was delegated to the special-projects supervisor, Deidre Backs. The team approached Disney, Paramount, Universal, Fox, and many other studios to approve licensing rights. Zak Penn, who wrote the final draft of the script, gave enormous credit to Backs for her tireless work in clearing all the character rights for the film. He also hinted that this unique process was carried out with such brilliant execution, that it was sure to be the subject of film school dissertations for years to come.

“They should give her an Oscar for licensing”
– Zak Penn on Deidre Backs efforts in clearing rights.

As with Ultraman, it was inevitable that not all licenses would be achieved. The crew could not get the rights to the Spaceship from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind despite it being a Steven Spielberg film. They also didn’t get the Rights to Drogon from Game Of Thrones, or the right to Bladerunner due to release of the second movie at the time.

If we think about the number of licenses required, and the diverse rights holders involved, the final product is a testament to the work of the production crew.

Don’t Tell Spielberg

Despite Spielberg’s best efforts to exclude his work from the film, the crew were adamant they would sneak in a few references without his knowledge. By all accounts, he spotted several references including graffiti depicting the creatures from Gremlins, and the Fratelli’s diner from The Goonies and unfortunately had them removed. A Gremlin did make the final cut eventually, Spike can be seen in the final battle charging ahead of the Joker.

Spike the Gremlin
Spike from Gremlins evaded the eagle eyes of Steven Spielberg to make the final battle.

It has been suggested by various there are many more references that Spielberg doesn’t even know about. The film has so many and is so densely populated in places that it could take us a while to find every reference in Ready Player One. Maybe we will never know them all.

This was a film by nerds, for nerds, and we love it. We have to tip our hat to the crew for making this possible. We salute you!

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