Q. Say a character constantly spouts lines from popular songs or films.. At what point will the writer have copyright problems?
Not as soon as the writer has audience-getting-annoyed problems.
First of all, for the purposes of sending your screenplay out to agents and producers, you don't need the rights to anything.
When you option or sell your script (Lord willing), there will be a clause in your contract that looks something like this:
Writer warrants that the Script is original in its entirety and does not infringe upon the copyright of any other person or entity, nor does the Script defame any person or entity, nor does the Script invade the privacy or infringe upon the publicity rights or any other rights of any person or entity.
You can modify that statement if necessary to say that the Script contains the following elements whose copyright does not belong to you.
With the exception of the Oscar Mayer Weiner song, which appears on page 21 of the Script, Writer warrants...
Once your script goes into production, the legal situation changes again. The released movie -- and therefore your production script -- can quote anything you like under the doctrine of "fair use." It's often felt that quotations of up to 250 words are fair use. So you're probably entitled to quote the Oscar Mayer Weiner song without obtaining the rights thereto. However, the Errors and Omissions lawyer will probably ask you to get permission anyway. (They're persnickety, those lawyers.) You can also paraphrase to your heart's content -- you can wish you were any other kind of weiner -- and you can parody anything you like, under the doctrine of parody. This is why the Zucker Brothers are still at large.
For some reason that escapes me, the same does not apply to singing
. Once melody is involved, I gather, the production company must obtain the rights. So in your production draft, characters can't sing
the Oscar Mayer Weiner song without written permission from the rights holder.
But this is not your problem. Your only obligation is to be clear in your option / purchase agreement that your script does contain some non-original non-public-domain material, that you are not warranting you have the rights thereto, nor are you granting any rights thereto.
Note also that in Canada, the privacy rights of real persons loom much larger than in the US, as there is no First Amendment in Canadian law.Note: I'm not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Use at your own risk!