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Screenshot of the HBO official website for Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You
Screenshot of the HBO official website for Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You

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Emmy winner Michaela Coel shines a light on how she has protected her IP

It’s been a busy month for actor, writer and director Michaela Coel. In September, she won her first Emmy for writing the limited series I May Destroy You, and released her first book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto.

Both the series and the book are related to the way this talented UK creative views the issue of intellectual property. When she started to pitch the idea for I May Destroy Youin 2017, she first approached Netflix with the project. The streamer offered her US$1 million. In return, she would have to give Netflix full ownership of the series. Coel said no.

In an interview with Vulture, she recalls trying to retain 5% of her copyright during the negotiations, then gradually backing down to 2%, 1%, and finally 0.5%. But Netflix would not budge, essentially telling her that this was not the way things were usually done. She had a revelation when the development executive she was negotiating with told her, “You’re doing the right thing.” Hearing this, Coel recalled: “I finally realised — I’m not crazy. This is crazy.”

So she took the project to the BBC, where she was able to retain both full creative control and her rights to the work. Why was this possible? A Forbes article provides more illumination. In the UK, if a larger broadcasting entity owns less than 25% of a producer’s company, that producer has the right to retain the underlying IP of programmes commissioned by UK public service broadcasters such as the BBC. This regulatory framework has helped producers to hold on to their copyright, which allows them to benefit financially if their work is subsequently distributed outside the UK.

So legislation goes a long way when it comes to levelling the playing field for creatives. Advocacy is important too, and Coel is a very effective advocate. In 2018, she famously gave a speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival’s James MacTaggart Lecture that “documented, from her point of view... how to respond to a world whose answer to everything is: That’s just the way it is”. As a creative, she has taken this lesson to heart: business as usual may very well mean a bad deal for creators, and protecting one’s IP often requires challenging the status quo. 

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Mark Laudi

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