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Protecting Your Screenplay
by Bill Craig

Bill Craig is a former university screenwriting teacher, and a full-time writer.

Too Much Caution

He was an excellent screenwriter with a pile of commercial scripts. But who knew? He had transformed his San Fernando Bungalow into an armed compound. He built guard towers with automatic machine guns which were activated if the parameter was violated. Inside he sat behind bullet-proof Plexiglas with an Uzi cradled in his lap. Behind him was a massive steel vault built into where a clothes closet used to be. If someone expressed an interest in one of his screenplays they had to fill out a life history which was investigated by an international detective agency on full retainer. Only when the person received clearance was a script produced from the vault. Of course, it had to be read under his watchful eyes and was never allowed to leave the compound.

He could have sold many screenplays but he sold none. But he was satisfied that, not once, had someone ripped him off.

Maintaining legal control of your work is critical. While the incidence of screenplays being ripped off are probably over estimated, it does happen. Yet, a preoccupation about being ripped off can be a negative influence for a writer.

During the development of the screenplay a paranoid writer will find themselves cut off from any support system such as feedback from other writers and participation in workshops.

During the marketing phase when the objective is to get the work read, every event will cause panic.

My advice is to take the point of view that IF you are ripped off, and can prove it, you'll likely make more money through a plagiarism suit than you would have in selling your first spec screenplay. Writing screenplays and dealing with a vast movie industry is hard enough without becoming paralyzed with fear. You should take efforts to protect your work, then relax.

The Creative Trail

The prudent screenwriter will take some simple steps which create an electronic and/or hard copy paper trail of your project's development and could be helpful if you ever have to establish your authorship.

Date work as it develops and file it--even if it's messy and you hope no one will ever see it. An occasional hard copy should be printed out, dated and stored somewhere. How long should you store these early drafts? As long as the project remains unsold and viable.

Various drafts can also be saved electronically as separate files with a reference date. To avoid cluttering up your Hard Drive with these, and possibly entering the realm of mass confusion, save them to a floppy disk and store somewhere safe.

If you participate in workshops or writer's groups, or are pitching your project as you develop the screenplay, it is imperative that you have dates, names and occasions when you presented the ideas underlying the screenplay. Of course, you would also keep track of those who read your work or may have had access to it. I suggest a running, chronological diary. This is very important if you are ripped off since a plagiarism suit requires proof that there was access to your material.

Ideas Belong to Everyone (sort of)

According to copyright law ideas cannot be owned and it's not possible to get statutory copyright for an idea. What is actually owned by the writer is the rendering of the idea. However, it's a gray area where an idea changes over into a rendering of that idea as is obvious by the many suits filed in the entertainment industry over ideas.

Because ideas, concepts, outlines, and scenarios cannot be copyrighted the Writer's Guild of America provides a registration service to assist writers. This service does not establish statutory ownership but is accepted by the courts as establishing the date at which you possessed the material being registered. Since many plagiarism disputes hinge on who possessed the idea(s) first this service is very helpful to the screenwriter.

Keep in mind that ideas come and go. Sometimes writers unknown to each other have similar ideas. There are ideas in the air.

The more concrete, expanded and elaborated your idea is the better off you are.

Statutory Protection

Once you've completed your screenplay, having a copyright issued for it is your best protection.

While copyright protection is established by the act of creation, legal statutory ownership is established only by applying for and being granted a copyright for the screenplay.

If your developing script will have no exposure to the entertainment industry then statutory ownership can be ignored until you've completed the final rewrite. However, if your first draft will be passed around for early marketing or comments, then you should probably formalize protection by applying for a copyright on the first draft prior to putting it out there. All the new material in a rewrite can be covered with a revised filing.

If you elect to not copyright your first draft, you should get copyright coverage for your finished screenplay prior to beginning your marketing efforts. Registering a copyright for your script is proof of ownership and puts a copy of your screenplay in the Library of Congress. Information on copyright and the appropriate forms are available at the Office of Copyrights.

Advice

The Writer's Guild Registration Service allows you to register material. Some people advise that a first draft and a finished screenplay be registered. However, since you can get actual statutory copyright for your screenplay there is nothing to be gained by filing a copy with the WGA.

There are possible advantages in registering ideas with the Guild.

Be advised that mailing a copy to yourself provides little protection. Use the WGA Registration Service for material which cannot be granted a copyright and copyright the material which can.

Go to this site at the Copyright Office for a copy of Form PA. You can gain an overview of copyright law is by reading Circular 1.pdf here.

Copyright © 1999 Bill Craig. Reprinted with permission.

Visit "Screenwriting Help" here for more of Bill Craig's articles about screenwriting.

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