Do you have an idea for a movie or TV show? Are you worried about someone stealing your idea? Let’s talk about how to copyright your ideas, because there are times when you absolutely must protect yourself.
It’s good to recognize your ideas are valuable. It’s understandable that you want to protect them. The question is: when do you need to take steps to copyright or otherwise protect your work?
Copyright Issues Overview
In this post, I’m going to talk about a number of copyright issues. I’ll also link to relevant resources along the way so you can get more in depth information about copyright where you need it.
- What Is A Copyright?
- Why Copyright Protection Is Important
- When Copyright Issues Occur
- What Copyright Does And Doesn’t Cover
- What Having A Copyright Does For You
- How To Protect Your Film Or TV Idea
- The Do’s And Don’ts Of Copyright
NOTE: I’m not a lawyer and this article does not provide legal advice. Here’s my full disclaimer.
What Is A Copyright
Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.
Why Copyright Protection Is Important
A quick internet search on the subject of copyright and idea protection will yield a massive number of potentially relevant search results. People care about this issue. In part, this is because there are serious legal issues and real money involved.
But the fundamental issue, in my opinion, is that copyrights are important because they relate to our dreams as creative people. We can’t help but be emotionally attached to our ideas. They are a part of us. We want to see them live, and we want to profit from their expression.
When Copyright Issues Occur
There are three kinds of copyright issues I see frequently where protecting yourself is crucial.
1. Adapting existing work
As a film executive with MGM, one of my specialties was in book-to-film adaptations. If you are considering adapting a book to a movie, it is crucial that you investigate optioning the rights first. Without securing the rights, any work you do on the adaptation is unlikely to be sellable.
This applies not only to books, but also sequels or prequels of existing movies, comic books, magazine articles, and short stories.
A first step in securing the rights would be to contact the publisher to see if they have a subsidiary rights division that can tell you who controls the rights or represents the author.
2. Starting a project with a friend
If you are starting a writing partnership, you need to be thinking about the long term.
Some of the issues are:
- How will you share credit?
- How will any expenses and revenues be handled?
- How will decisions and disagreements be handled?
- What if someone leaves the partnership?
Writing a contract together can be a good way to get a new writing partnership on the right track. However, for writers with more experience and credits, I recommend working with an entertainment attorney just to be on the safe side.
3. When you are negotiating with a producer
For example, if a producer wants to:
- Pay you a flat rate for your rights
- Option your work so another writer can work on it
- Not compensate you for further rewrites
- Not pay you according to a verbal agreement to do so
- Not provide a written contract
These are all situations where copyright issues are important, and where I recommend working with an entertainment attorney.
This is a good article explaining the top ten reasons when a writer needs an entertainment lawyer.
What Copyright Does And Doesn’t Cover
The specific expression (embodiment) of your idea is copyrightable.
This typically means:
- TV pilots
Ideas themselves are not copyrightable.
This typically means:
- Verbal pitches
- Core concepts
- Character notions
- Plot devices
Development executive and bestselling author Chad Gervich provides a good example of exactly what is and is not protected for a given idea.
Here’s an excerpt:
“Let’s say you have an idea for a TV show about a boy who befriends a lost chupacabra. You do NOT own that idea. A TV company, a fellow writer, or your best friend could all write their own movies about boys befriending lost chupacabras… and you would (probably) have NO LEGITIMATE CLAIM they stole your idea.
Now, if you’d already written a script or treatment… and you could prove that they stole your plot, characters, lines of dialogue… you might have a case. But the idea itself—”boy befriends lost chupacabra”—is not yours. Even if you discussed it with people… you DO NOT OWN THE IDEA. You own only your execution.”
In the article, you’ll see that Chad takes care to say that he’s discussing TV and not movies, but as a former film executive I can say that in my experience, Chad’s writing on this subject applies to film as well. I highly recommend reading Chad’s article entirely, and scrolling through the comments where Chad responds at great length to other commenters.
What Having A Copyright Does For You
Copyright provides evidence of ownership.
That’s basically it.
Two things you need to understand:
- You have the copyright already: you own the copyright from the moment you have “fixed your work in a tangible means of expression.” Once you’ve written it down or in some way recorded (fixed) it, you own the copyright to the expression of that idea.
- Copyright doesn’t give your IDEA any protection: Copyright doesn’t protect you, and it doesn’t protect your ideas. It only protects the specific expression or execution of your ideas.
As Gervich says:
“If you should need to prove, legally, that you created a script, treatment, story, or other type of ‘creative execution’ before someone else, you must prove:
1. That your execution and their execution are identical or similar enough to suggest actual theft.
2. That you possessed your “execution” before they did.
And in order to prove those things, you need evidence, which is what copyrights, WGA registration, and sealed envelopes all offer. Not protection… just potential pieces of evidence.”
How To Protect Your Film Or TV Idea
When you have a finished, final draft of your screenplay, TV pilot, or novel, if you want to protect it, this is my recommendation:
- Gather the digital evidence: Create a computer folder with a copy of the summary, outline, treatment, and final draft of your created work. In other words, one folder with all of the evidence.
- Archive this folder with password protection: A program I use for putting password protection on things is Archiver.
- Email this archive to a responsible friend: This should be someone whom you know keeps their email forever. Yes, you’ll have a copy of the archive, but it’s more credible if, in the event of a lawsuit, someone who had no access to the information produces it.
- Keep all your email: It’s not hard to keep all your emails (not junk or spam, of course), and you should already be maintaining a pristine backup system. If something does happen where you are a victim of theft, clear records of who sent what material to whom and when can help.
- Keep track of your meetings: You should be keeping track of who you meet with, when, where, and what you discuss. This is most important as part of your meeting strategy to sell your work, but in the event something happens, these records can be useful.
- Register the final draft of your work with the Writer’s Guild.
- Register the final draft of your work with the US Copyright Office. You can also pre-register certain works in progress. This registration is required to sue for copyright infringement in federal court. See the website for more details.
The Do’s And Don’ts Of Copyright
Let’s start with the Don’ts:
- Don’t ask anyone to sign an NDA to read your work. While there are certain cases where this would make sense, in general, this is not common practice. It makes you look like a rookie.
- Don’t send an envelope with a hard copy of your script in it to yourself. You might as well email a copy to a responsible third-party instead because it’s cheaper and faster.
- Don’t put the Copyright # or WGA registration # on your title page. This is what amateurs do. It doesn’t offer you any actual protection. And it biases the person reading your script against you when they look at your title page and sigh, “Rookie….”
- Don’t use a “leave-behind.” This means, when you take a formal pitch meeting of any kind (even at a pitchfest), don’t leave behind a one-sheet or treatment. The most you should leave is a business card with your contact information (although if they ask you for your script, then by all means give it to them and make a note of when, where, and to whom you gave the material). The real reason not to leave anything behind is because it’s almost never used to make your case—it’s used to come up with an excuse to “pass.” But it also pertains to protecting your ideas.
Now for the Do’s:
- Do protect yourself. Keep your email, backup your computer, keep records of meetings, mail an archive to a friend, and register the final draft of your project with the WGA and US Copyright Office.
- Do send the following informal email when you give someone a hard copy of your script. It should say something to the effect of, “Nice to meet you and thanks for taking a look at the script I left with you today.” This is an added piece of evidence.
- Do come up with a lot of ideas. One idea isn’t worth very much (if anything at all). A person with a fertile imagination, hard-core work ethic, and the commitment to succeed is worth a lot. The best way to protect your ideas is to be a person with whom people want to work.
- Do consider working with an attorney. If you’re negotiating something where money and credit is involved, don’t do it yourself. Hire an expert.
- Do work fast. Often, ideas are in the air, and many writers are working on variations of the same thing, developing in parallel, completely unaware of each other. Sometimes, the version of an idea that lives is the one that gets to market first.
Final thought: should you put a copyright symbol on your cover page?
The professional writers I’ve asked say No, the lawyers I’ve asked say Yes. So I’m on the fence about this. Personally, in the scripts I read, it doesn’t matter to me either way.
Pitching Is Part Of The Creative Process
At the point when you think you have a great idea, that’s the time when (after protecting yourself) you need to start pitching it to other people and getting feedback.
In my experience, there is nothing more injurious to a writer’s career than not getting feedback soon enough. It’s so easy to get excited about an idea, develop it in a vacuum, slave over the script, start dreaming and fantasizing about the big bucks or the Oscar acceptance speech or just getting Mom or Dad to say, “Good work,” then finally have it read and discover that it’s not as good as you think. It’s heartbreaking, but the real loss is wasted time.
So if you really, really think you’ve been ripped off, it’s time to talk to an attorney. Then, regardless, it’s time to get back to work, and to start pitching your next idea as soon as you can. The best protection for your ideas and your career is to get feedback, adapt, and constantly improve.
For more on copyright issues, I highly recommend this compendium of copyright-related posts by screenwriting guru John August.
PS. Thanks to entertainment attorney Adam Kagan for his help.
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