Who holds the rights to the Ratatouille musical on TikTok?

20 Gennaio 2021

The spontaneous project, a Broadway show inspired by the Pixar film, raises questions about copyright

The Italian version of this article was first published on Wired.

The TikTok musical Ratatouille, informally known as Ratatousical, debuted online on New Year’s Day and has already raised 1 million dollars in ticket sales. Some of the earnings will benefit the Actors Fund, which is supporting artists and others in the entertainment industry during this challenging time.

The musical developed on TikTok over the course of several months as composers, fans, set designers, costume designers, and choreographers contributed musical numbers, songs, and even a poster for an imaginary show based on the 2007 Pixar animated film.

Seaview Productions then produced the show in cooperation with TikTok—and seemingly with Disney’s okay. Several well-known Broadway stars acted in the show and sang the music, which was also performed by the Broadway Sinfonietta orchestra.

Toward the end of the show many TikTokers appeared who contributed to the creation of the show and seem to have been paid for their creative contributions.

It all began when Emily Jacobsen, an American schoolteacher, wrote a ballad about Remy, the rat who dreams of becoming a chef. Jacobsen’s video was then transformed by composer and arranger Daniel Mertzlufft, who shaped the piece into a big musical number, stimulating the collective imagination of thousands of TikTok users. This creative exercise went viral and led to the show on January 1.

Who owns the copyright?

Who owns the copyright to work created by TikTok users? In general, anyone who creates a song or dance on TikTok is the author and automatically owns exclusive copyright to the work, on the condition that the copyright conditions are met. But the question grows thornier when we look into cases where creative contributions consist of multiple parties further developing an existing work. And determining copyright for the work is just the first hurdle. The TikTokers involved are located all over the world, so it’s no easy task to identify the law that applies to their creative contributions. The law applicable to the creative work itself must be considered in tandem with the law applicable to the contract that regulates the relationship between the platform and its users.

The plot, script, and characters in the story are the same as those in the original Pixar (now owned by Disney) film, meaning that the end result seems to resemble a very creative remake, despite the obvious differences in the form of expression and method of communication used. This doesn’t seem to have inspired Disney to take any legal action. Indeed, Disney appears to have endorsed the project, which will introduce a large group of children and young people to the story of Ratatouille and its rat protagonist, despite the fact that the film was released 13 years ago.

What would happen, though, if Disney, or another party, without TikTok’s consent, used TikTokers’ creative contributions from the musical Ratatousical or elsewhere? Would it need the consent of the authors of the work, if we grant that it consists of original creative work? Would it be enough?  TikTok’s general terms don’t grant the platform TikTokers’ copyrights. The authors remain in possession of copyright for their own creative contributions, but those rights are heavily impacted by the platform’s contractual provisions, which users accept when they download the app. Those provisions state that by publishing their content on the platform, users grant irrevocable, non-exclusive, perpetual, sublicensable rights free of charge to the platform and to other users, who acquire the right to copy, modify, and share said content.

Authors also waive their moral rights to their content and, finally, they waive their right to compensation for the use of their work. TikTok’s contractual conditions establish that TikTokers have no right to receive payment deriving from use and enjoyment of their original content published on the platform, and monetization of said content, including on third-party platforms (as an example but not limited to YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms), is also prohibited.

Paying creatives

So it seems not only that TikTokers can’t get paid, but that TikTok can get paid, as nothing seems to stop the platform from authorizing third parties, including for pay, to use the works published on the platform, including by modifying them, in order to create derivative works based on creative contributions published on the platform that can be republished on various other platforms. It will be interesting to see whether these contractual conditions stand up to the scrutiny of judges in European countries.

In the meantime, authors intending to publish on TikTok must come to terms with the fact that it and other platforms may act as a “third wheel” in the enjoyment of intellectual property rights. We’ve already seen this happen with Instagram, and it seems even more likely for TikTok, whose contractual terms are even more stringent.

One corrective move in the opposite direction may be found in the Creator Fund service recently launched on TikTok, which would permit the most creative and ambitious authors to earn from their videos using a system that follows in the footsteps of the YouTube business model.

It remains to be seen how the platform that is giving Instagram and YouTube a run for their money and seems to be providing a home for the most artistic part of the Web will evolve. Indeed, TikTok seems to be operating according to the dictum of restaurant critic Ego in the film Ratatouille: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

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