Screenwriter’s Guidepost: How Can I Protect My Script from Theft?

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Screenwriter's Guidepost: How Can I Protect My Script from Theft? by Mario Moreno | Script Magazine

Question: How can I protect my work from being stolen?

I’m one of those writers whose work has been stolen.

It’s a story for another blog, but one thing is for sure: The feeling of knowing your work was taken without credit or payment can make you feel sick and stupid.

Bottom line (as if it even needs to be said): Having your work stolen totally sucks.

Counter to the popular image of some stranger—a frustrated writer lying in wait for you to slip up so they can take your idea, or an evil executive thumbing through unproduced scripts looking for someone to rip off—my work was stolen by someone I thought I knew very well: My writing partner of five years and twice as many scripts. So theft does happen, and it can be anyone—even the person you’d least expect—that jacks your work and runs.

While everyone is justified in wanting to protect their projects, some writers come off as paranoid novices—usually because they lack all the necessary information.

Which brings us to the great question: What can we do to protect our work?

First, it’s important to know what we can and cannot protect. For example, before my work was stolen, I didn’t know you could register copyright on a work-for-hire, so I didn’t even try. Big mistake.

On the US Library of Congress website, it states: “Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.”*

It further clarifies by stating: “Copyright protects ‘original works of authorship’ that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.” In essence, this means you cannot copyright your idea for a movie; you can only copyright your expression of the idea in the form of the screenplay.

By the way, it also states (shocker): “Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases. In some cases, these things may be protected as trademarks.”*

Okay, so let’s say you’ve actually completed (the current showable draft of) your screenplay, the tangible expression of your wicked awesome movie idea—congratulations! What now?

Technically, you own the copyright to any work you create the moment it is tangibly expressed. However, copyright registration provides you with proof of authorship. Which means you can actually take someone to court and have a chance to win. At the least, you’re more likely to find a lawyer willing to take your case if you have proof of copyright.

So do you register with the Writers Guild of America or the US Library of Congress?

They are not the same thing. There are key differences. Not knowing the nuances is part of what led to me being such a perfect victim of intellectual property theft. While the list below is not meant to be all encompassing, here are some bullet points:

  • US copyright lasts the author’s life plus 70 years, costs $35, entitles a claimant to sue for statutory damages and to win attorney’s fees, should the court settle in their favor.
  • WGAw registration lasts 5 years, costs $10 for members of the guild in good-standing, $20 for nonmembers of the guild on the west coast, and $25 for nonmembers of the guild on the east coast (students with ID: $17 through WGAe). What guild registration provides is the ability to object to a proposed credit, which will enter the credit into arbitration. The arbitration process involves guild members reviewing all drafts of the screenplay by each writer and following a formula that determines the credits.**

If I had to choose just one, I’d always go with US copyright. The ability to win statutory damages and attorney fees is worth it. Without US copyright, the battle you can wage is usually over anyway. But since it’s only around $50 to do both, and you likely spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours to create the work, fifty bucks is a small price to pay for peace of mind.

In addition to those mentioned above, other things you can do to protect your work include keeping a paper trail by saving all the correspondence you have in the form of emails about your project. You can also keep detailed notes of who you met with, when, where, and what exactly was discussed.

If you are part of a writing team, make sure you have a standard collaboration agreement—like I failed to do. You can get one here.

Even if you’ve agreed to go 50-50 and to list the names in alphabetical order, you still want something in writing that designates exactly how the work and the profits will be divided. Some teams may say, “But we’ve been best friends all our lives.” And I’ll reply, “Tell it to the judge. Oh, wait a minute…”

All this being said, is theft that rampant? Every time you see a movie trailer that’s similar to your story does that mean your idea was stolen? Probably not.

All the writers I know that have been writing long enough can share stories of seeing a sale listed in the trades or a trailer in the theater that resembled their story. Most are cases of an idea being “in the air,” inspired by a source or universal experience that fed many writers’ imaginations. If you come up with a lot of stories, you will see some of their doppelgangers sell. You can at least take pride in knowing you weren’t that far off.

The late Blake Snyder wrote an excellent blog on the power of the zeitgeist, which you can read here.

There’s also a great blog by Ray Morton that touches on the nature of recurring trends in story topics and styles over a specific period of time, which you can read here.

There’s always a risk when you bring a project to market. It’s a leap of faith that all creative artists must take if they want their work shown to the masses. It’s just the way it is. And know: It takes more work to steal your story and try to get away with it than it does to just buy it from you or buy someone else’s.

So protect yourself. Then embrace the risk. Fingers crossed. Paper trail collected.

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Please note: This is not meant to be a substitute for legal advice.

More information can be found on the following sites:
*US Library of Congress copyright registration
*U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, 800-786-9199
*WGAw registration
*WGAe registration 

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