More than a dozen screenplays on the Ruby McCollum story, relating the 1952 murder trial of a wealthy African-American housewife who shot her white, senator-elect lover, Dr. Leroy Adams, have circulated in Hollywood over the decades. Recently, several additional screenplays have surfaced, and attorneys have been asked to “clear” the material for any possible copyright violations.
Several of the screenplays are legitimate, being based upon copyrighted work where permission was given, but most claim to be based upon “public domain” materials.
The fact is that very little of the Ruby McCollum story is in the public domain. Newspaper accounts of the time, especially in Florida, were circumspect, reluctant to delve into the sordid underworld that set the scene for the murder. And there were no “rags” in the 1950s to report on the case.
Writers who are attracted to the salacious drug, rape and gambling aspects of the story, including scenes with Ruby McCollum, Dr. Adams, Sam McCollum and others, are relying either on primary copyrighted materials, or upon derivative works that are based upon copyrighted materials. Without the copyrighted materials, there is no story line for a screenplay.
Many of these derivative works that are so tantalizing to screenwriters do not carry copyrights and have not be challenged by the owners of the copyrights because they are considered “fair use,” in that their use is to relate the Ruby McCollum story for educational reasons, and not for monetary gain.
Other works rely on interviews or documentaries with people telling the Ruby McCollum story, not realizing that these people are themselves relying on “false memories” created by reading copyrighted works that tell the story. Most of those interviewed are not old enough to have actual memories of events that climaxed with the murder in 1952.
Some writers seem to think that “innocent infringement” is a defense against copyright violation. But this plea only releases the infringer from suit if the work is abandoned—it does not allow the infringer to profit from his or her derivative work, and may still result in damage claims by the copyright holder.
Finally, many writers have had their scripts “cleared” by attorneys, only to find that the attorneys are not familiar enough with the details of the story to be able to make an accurate determination. Such “cleared” scripts are still subject to suit, and the inevitable process of discovery will demand proof of public domain material for each and every scene in the screenplay. The material can, in turn, be traced back to the work of the copyright holder, who is much more familiar with their intellectual rights than any outside attorney.
One such example is a documentary that was “cleared,” but contained a floor plan of Dr. Adams office, which was copyrighted material that appeared in State of Florida vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant, published by C. Arthur Ellis, Jr. The documentary producer assumed that this was public domain material, but it was not, as is much of the “transcript” that was liberally reconstructed, annotated and supplemented by the author of that work failing the existence of any extant complete copy of the transcript of the trial.
In any event, authors should be aware of the following copyrighted sources for this story before they invest their time in writing screenplays and attempting to sell them. They can then seek permission to base their screenplay on the copyrighted work.
Primary works on Ruby McCollum, reported from first-hand experience and under copyright protection:
Zora Neale Hurston:
1. “The Life Story of Ruby McCollum” series in the Pittsburgh Courier (copyrights 1952 to 1953).
Rights are claimed by the New Pittsburgh Courier, but some rights may be claimed by Hurston estate because Hurston was not fully compensated per her agreement with the paper. Hurston estate also maintains letters and notes on the story that are copyrighted but unpublished. Hurston estate is administered by Lucy Hurston, Hurston’s niece, and archives are maintained in New York offices of attorney for estate.
William Bradford Huie:
1. Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail and republished as The Crime of Ruby McCollum (copyrights 1956 and 1957)
2. “The Strange Case of Ruby McCollum,” by Huie in Ebony Magazine (1954). Promotion for forthcoming book.
3. Screenplay on the Ruby McCollum story commissioned by Huie and now in the Huie archives.
Huie Archive also maintains copyrighted and unpublished material on the story.
Huie estate is controlled by Huie’s second wife, who was not married to him when he covered the story. Currently, the rights for a screenplay are held by Ms. Jude Hagin of Ocala, Florida, formerly with the Florida Film Commission.
Several screenplays previously held rights that have now expired.
C. Arthur Ellis, Jr, PhD:
1. RUBY, a screenplay (copyright 2000)
2. The Trial of Ruby McCollum (copyright 2003)
3. Zora Hurston and the Strange Case of Ruby McCollum (copyright 2009)
4. State of Florida vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant (copyright 2007)
5. CAUGHT BETWEEN TWO GUNS, a screenplay (copyright 2012)
Ellis also maintains copyrighted, unpublished interviews and tapes, including taped interview with Ruby McCollum’s cell mate at Lowell penitentiary.
C. Arthur Ellis, Jr. holds all rights to his work.
“Ruby Talks.” Interview with Ruby McCollum in Chattahoochee State Mental Hospital (copyright 1958).
Ocala Star Banner:
Al Lee, reporter, published several articles in the 1990s as well as an interview with Ruby McCollum at retirement home in Ocala, Florida. She stated that she did not remember the murder.
Aspects of the Ruby McCollum story covered in primary, copyrighted works:
The work of Hurston covers the first trial of Ruby McCollum, as well as some background investigative work on the life of Ruby McCollum and the talk around Live Oak regarding the murder.
The work of Huie covers the appeal of Ruby McCollum’s verdict and the second trial, along with intense investigative work on the background of Ruby McCollum and Dr. Adams. It also covers the failed lawsuit to gain permission for the press to speak with Ruby McCollum.
The work of Ellis reconstructs the trial transcript in The Trial of Ruby McCollum, and is published separately and annotated in State of Florida vs. Ruby McCollum, Defendant. The transcript is NOT in the public domain since it was assembled from various partial sources and portions filled in where the transcript were not complete, based upon the author’s interpretation of the flow of the trial testimony. No complete transcript of the trial exists. Also, supplementary material, such as the floor plan of Adams’ office, were never in evidence in the trial and were drawn by the author from memory.
Ellis is the only living historian of the Ruby McCollum story who knew all of the characters, and has been an invited guest speaker at the Miami Book Fair International, The Florida Historical Society, the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Society and had numerous TV and radio interviews, including LA Theatre Works, NPR stations and local television stations. He is currently participating in a student-produced film short on the Ruby McCollum story, for which he will consult on the script and perform voice overs from a first person perspective.
The Jet Magazine and Ocala Star Banner articles are the only known first person interviews with the living Ruby McCollum. Huie, Ellis and Hurston never interviewed Ruby McCollum.
Everybody’s Ruby, a stage play by Thulani Davis with permission from the Hurston estate (copyright 2000).
Ruby McCollum, an audio play by LA Theatre Works with permission from the Huie estate (copyright 1997). Also, 2011 production interviewing C. Arthur Ellis, Jr. regarding his take on the play and his recollections of the story.
The Silencing of Ruby McCollum: Race, Class and Gender in the South, published from the doctoral work of Tammy Evans and containing information supplied with permission by Ellis, and the Hurston and Huie estates (copyright 2006).
The Other Side of Silence: The Untold Story of Ruby McCollum, a film documentary by Claudia Johnson, Ph.D. with interviews of people who recall town gossip and who have read the work of Ellis, Huie and Hurton (copyright 2010). Film contains floor plan of Adams’ office with copyright permission from Ellis. Film carries an excellent interview with A.K. Black, the prosecuting attorney in the trial. It is the only known extant footage, but Dr. Johnson has thus far declined granting permission to use this footage.
Jude Hagin and partners are currently in production of a documentary, with screenplay rights to the story for a future film given by the Huie estate.
Derivative Works Without Copyright Permission:
Innumerable articles and chapters in newspapers, magazines and books, based upon the works of Hurston and Huie.
Web articles and postings, based upon the works of Ellis, Huie and Hurston.
Documentaries, based upon the primary works of Ellis, Huie and Hurston and the accounts of living persons who have read these works. These are not primary sources, and most of these contain “false memories” of people who read the works of Ellis, Huie and Hurston. Also, most of those interviewed are not old enough to have actual firsthand memories of events happening prior to or shortly after the murder in 1952.
Ellis, the Hurston estate and the Huie estate have not pursued intellectual rights against any of the above since many are considered fair use to the extent that they have not been works for hire, nor have they been sold for a profit.
Several works have been taken out of publication since they were intended for sale, contained copyrighted material and were legally challenged. This includes the first edition of Bolita Sam, with the second edition still under consideration for legal action.
Pitfalls for writers, producers, attorneys and bonding agencies intending to write, clear, insure or produce a screenplay include the following:
1. Failing to understand that derivative works in the public domain are not free from the copyright protections held by the original authors from which they were derived.
2. Failing to understand that “first hand” current accounts are based upon “false memories” of people who read copyrighted material.
3. Failing to understand that writers who have heard or read the primary copyrighted materials tend to internalize characters, scenes and events and re-write scenarios based upon these materials.
4. Failing to understand that all of the details of the Ruby McCollum story are in material copyrighted by the afore-mentioned sources, including the published trial transcript.
In short, anyone interested in creating a screenplay on the Ruby McCollum story should pursue the safe path of contacting the copyright holders of these materials to clear their work.
Finally, relying on the advice of attorneys is no guarantee that the script is free of copyright violations and is not a legal defense. Remember, it is not the attorney who will be sued, it is the people who hired him to clear the script.