PrimeTime: The Truth About Protecting Your Work

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Thank you to everyone who came out this weekend to the Great American Pitchfest!  …And especially thanks to those of you I met at my pitching seminar, “7 1/2 Ingredient to a Perfect Pitch.”  It was an incredible turnout… it was wonderful to meet you all… and thank you for the great response!  To those who couldn’t make it… try and come next year!  The whole GAPF weekend was a blast: great people, terrific writers, amazing speakers and presenters.

Anyway, before getting to this week’s question, a couple fun announcements…

1)  I’ll be the special guest this Sunday night, June 12, at 6:30 on Script‘s TV Writer Chat (, a live online chat and discussion for and about TV writers and writing.  So come up with some good questions, and click HERE to learn more or participate… I hope to see you online!

2)  Check out my interview with Pilar Alessandra on this week’s “On the Page” podcast. Pilar runs On the Page, a terrific screenwriting consultancy and workshop… and she also produces the “On the Page Podcast,” which features interviews with screenwriters, directors, performers, and authors. We talk about taking and incorporating script notes, selling pilots, breaking in—you name it. It was a blast doing the podcast, so it hope it’s as much fun to listen to!  Find the podcast on iTunes… or click HERE and enjoy! (UPDATE: the “On the Page” website seems to be having some technical issues with the podcasts, so if it doesn’t work, just go to iTunes. They’re in the process of fixing it, so if it doesn’t work, I’ll try to post a better link as soon as I have one…)

And now… this week’s question(s), which actually come from several people over the past few weeks.

Jerry writes…

Do I need to register my script with the WGA, or protect it somehow, before sending it to agents, studios, etc.?

Catherine writes…

I have an idea for a TV show which I’ve registered with the WGA, but I recently learned that a cable network is developing an almost identical show idea!  I’ve never pitched or had contact with this company, but do I have any recourse for keeping or protecting my idea?

Evelyn writes…

I’ve always registered my script ideas with the Writers Guild’s script registration service, but I recently heard that it offers no actual protection… and only an only official copyright carries any weight.  WTF?!  Why am I doing it?  Why do they even have it?!

Good questions, all… this is always a sticky issue.  There are several factors at play…

  • Is an idea protectable?
  • What’s the best way to protect your writing?
  • Is it worth it to legally protect your work?

In fact, I checked in with an entertainment lawyer before tackling these questions, just because it can be a confusing area.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight…

You can not copyright or protect– in any way– your ideas.

Ideas are not copyright-able.  Only the execution of an idea is copyright-able.

The only thing you own…

So… 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.

Now… can you protect your “execution,” your script or treatment?  Possibly.

But here’s another thing to understand…

Obtaining a copyright, or a WGA or ProtectRite registration, does NOT guarantee protection of intellectual property.

A copyright, WGA or Protectrite registration simply provides a piece of EVIDENCE as to when and where you first held ownership of your material.

So if you registered or copyrighted your script on June 4, 2011, it does not mean that as of June 4, 2011, your script is protected.  It means you have one piece of evidence saying that on June 4, 2011, this particular piece of intellectual property was in your possession.

…And that piece of evidence may or may not be enough to convince a court of law you yourself created this particular intellectual property.

In fact, a screenplay or piece of literature is “copyrighted” the instant you commit it to paper; it doesn’t technically need to be officially copyrighted or registered… but those things help if you need to prove your timeline in a court of law.

However, as my lawyer-friend says, you could just as easily mail yourself the script in a sealed envelope on June 4, 2011… never open it until you’re in court… and, thanks to the postmark, prove you had the script on June 4.  (I had always heard this “poor  man’s copyright” was bogus and ineffectual, but she says nothing is 100 percent effectual or ineffectual… it’s all just potential evidence helping to prove when you executed your idea on paper.)

The point is… 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 at least a couple things:

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.  If you copyright or register your chupacabra script on June 4, 2011… but they produce a June 2 email with their chupacabra script attached… you’ll have a much tougher time proving you wrote the original script.  The fact that you obtained an official copyright or WGA registration does NOT mean you have protection or a more powerful piece of evidence.

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.

So the real question is…

Is it worth it to ProtectRite, WGA-register or copyright your work?

Well… if registering or copyrighting your scripts or treatments gives you piece of mind… go for it.  (WGA registration is $20; copyright filing is $35.)  The truth is: I think a lot of people like registering their script with the Guild simply because it seems cool; it makes them seem like a “real” screenwriter– “Hey, my script is registered with the Writers Guild!”  So if you wanna do it– pay your $20 and feel good.


Never—I repeat: NEVER—put your WGA registration or copyright number, or even a ©, on your script when sending it to a studio, network, agency, or producer.

It is a HUGE red flag, screaming, “I’m not ready for the professional world—don’t take me seriously!”  Why?…

Because there is no bigger sign of an amateur than someone who’s worried about their stuff being stolen.

Now, I can’t speak as much to the film world, but I’m a firm believer that in the TV world, MATERIALS DO NOT GET STOLEN.

Not used by professionals.

Newbies like to think they do… and everyone thinks they have a story of how someone stole their pitch… or a friend who got their script ripped off… but those people are—99% of the time—DEAD WRONG.

Firstly, it is nearly impossible, in the world of TV, to steal a script or idea from the writer.  Why?…

Because TV shows work very differently than movies.

A movie is a “finite” piece of work. It happens once… it’s over… it can never be repeated or continued.  So when a screenwriter writes a script, it’s sold to a producer or studio and handed to a director; the writer rarely stays involved.

But this can’t happen in television.

TV shows tell new stories week after week, year after year.  So they need the writer/creator to help tell and guide the storytelling. And while you could argue that the original writer could be replaced, this rarely happens in TV… especially in the embryonic stages of development.

Normally, one of the reasons studios and networks acquire a show is they love the unique voice and vision of the writer.

Think about some of the great shows of the last decade… Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives, Dan Harmon’s Community, Tom Kapinos’s Californication, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Greg Daniels’s The Office (which I credit to Greg Daniels, because his adaptation is such a departure from Ricky Gervais’s original).

These shows all have fiercely strong, unique voices and visions.  I mean, there have been plenty of suburban soap operas, but nobody saw the world quite like Marc Cherry. So it wasn’t the idea of Desperate Housewives that ABC was investing in; it was the unique vision of Marc Cherry. They wouldn’t have done the show without him; they needed him… to shepherd and maintain the wonderful tone and vision he created in his pilot. And while a show may eventually stand on its own feet enough to be run by a different showrunner, most series need—in their delicate first few months—the guidance of the visionaries who created them.  This is what networks and studios want to find and buy… not just well-written scripts or ideas.

(Think about Psych and The Mentalist. On paper, these two shows are very similar: “An observant man posing as a psychic uses his amazing powers of intuition to help police solve crimes.”– To be fair, Thomas Jane no longer “fools” police… but he used to.–  …Yet no one would confuse Steve Franks’ voice and vision with Bruno Heller’s.)

Thus, I always say…

The only true way to protect your work… or sell it.

If your show idea can be done without you… or if you worry your show can be done without you… you haven’t done your job well enough. You haven’t expressed your unique vision in a way that makes you indispensable.

And if your show does NOT have a vision so unique that it can’t be done without you… the networks won’t steal it—they just won’t be interested.

In other words… it’s not ideas that have value in television—a TV idea itself is almost worthless—it’s the person behind the idea.

If a network or studio likes your idea… they want you involved.  They need you; the last thing they want is to boot the creative visionary who sees the world of the show in a special way.

So the best—and perhaps only—protection for your TV show?… Have such a unique world-view that buyers can’t do your show without you… and wouldn’t want to.

Here’s another reason being afraid of losing your idea is a sign of an amateur:

Your job, as a TV writer or producer (at any level), is NOT to come up with a brilliant idea and try to protect, write, produce, or sell it.

Your job is to come up with a MILLION ideas to write, produce, or sell.

Most of your ideas will be crap and never go anywhere, but this is how your brain, your imagination, should be working… constantly creating and exploring new avenues.  You should be coming up with at least ten fresh ideas a day, good or bad.

What your TV ideas are worth…

This is why overly protective people come off as amateurs (and putting a WGA registration number on your script sends that signal); it suggests this is their only idea, so they’re clinging to it, desperately, in hopes of getting it somewhere.

But people who come up with one great television idea… even a brilliant idea… are not legitimate producers or writers.

They’re just people who had an idea.

And ideas are a dime and dozen… producers with vibrant, fertile imaginations are not.

And like I said: TV ideas, in and of themselves, are worthless; it’s only the producers/writers behind them that have value. I used to have a writing professor who’d say that whatever you’re writing, at any given time, is also being written by at least ten other writers. And he’s right. No matter how “original” you think your idea is… I promise you: it’s been done, tried, developed a hundred times before.  Your only hope is to do it differently than everyone else.

(A few years ago, a friend of mine, a TV writer working on a fairly popular show, spent months slaving over an original pilot she was excited about.  Days after finishing her final draft, Showtime announced they were doing a series with the exact same premise— and almost the exact same title– from a high-level showrunner! Although my friend was never able to sell her pilot, it was such a good illumination of her voice that she used it to land a job… writing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

So networks and studios aren’t looking for great ideas; they’re looking for great writers who can execute great ideas.  And great writers don’t usually have just one idea; they’re constantly dreaming up new ideas, stories, worlds, and “what ifs.”

Lastly,  Hollywood is a creative place… and creativity tends to feed on creativity.

People talk about their work, share ideas, read each other’s scripts, give each other suggestions and notes.  A good idea can come from anywhere… a friend, a co-worker, an executive, an agent, your barista or bus driver.

You don’t have to take every suggestion that comes your way, but by being open to people’s thoughts and ideas, you give your work the chance to become as strong as possible.

You also form connections with other creative people. By brainstorming story ideas with a producer today, you position yourself as the imaginative writer he wants to hire tomorrow.

Yet by being overly-protective, you not only miss out on potentially helpful suggestions, you remove yourself from the creative flows and whorls that fuel Hollywood.

(Having said this, I fully recognize the need to shelter a still-tender idea or script from outside influences; sometimes you need to be alone with an idea, letting it marinate in your own creative juices.  This is fine… and totally different from the fear of sharing your work because you think it could be stolen.)

So again… if you want to pay to register or copyright your work… go for it.  In fact, here are the links to online registration at the Writers Guild,the U.S. Copyright Office, as well as ProtectRite:


And in the mean time, stop worrying… and start writing.

I hope this helps, guys… and thanks for your questions!

If you—or anyone else—has more questions, thoughts, or comments… please feel free to post them below, tweet me at @chadgervich, or email me at chad@chadgervich.

And to tide you over till next week, here’s a preview for NBC‘s new sitcom, Are You There, Vodka, It’s Me, Chelsea

37 thoughts on “PrimeTime: The Truth About Protecting Your Work

  1. Pelegrin

    Boy, do you need to find another attorney. Shockingly, most attorneys who call themselves entertainment attorneys know almost nothing about copyright litigation. I hear and read mistakes all the time at forums and on blogs. I correct when I can. (I am a copyright litigator.)

    For the record, a script mailed to yourself is useless. Don’t bother.

    Although copyright registration costs a bit more than WGA registration, it lasts forever, and the info is searchable online. WGA arbitration is private and only lasts 7 years. A waste of money unless you want proof of registration immediately.

    Finally, if you share your ideas with another, unless you just blurt them out, you can be protected under a theory called “implied in fact contract”. Google it.

    You’re welcome. No charge.

  2. andresfinkiel

    Dear Chad,
    Thanks for your article.

    I live in Argentina.

    How can I do to offer my literary work for a tv format program to a producer ?

    Thanks in advance for your advice.


  3. Pingback: How To Copyright And Protect Your Ideas | Good in a Room

  4. Pingback: How To Copyright And Protect Your Ideas | Good in a Room.

  5. jack nickel

    Having writen screenplays for some time now, and having been a former married into member of a legendary film family, I’m well aware of the insights you’ve given… But here’s my take on the new problem of protecting your work before pitching networks in regards to Reality TV. I’ve spent a great deal of time drafting what I refer to as “reality fine tuning mode” in order to come up with all the necessary “elements” of the concept and complete first season’s treatment and scripted structure of events. The problem being you can’t copywrite concept. Thus if a nobody, uncredited within the TV genre, pitching becomes vulnerable to infringment. All they have to say is interesting, but we’re not interested at this time… Thusly concept and its elements can be utilized in anyway they want and… You’re shit out of luck. So even with this projects uniqueness of content and never done before elements being apparent, I feel the only way to protect my work is by stepping outside the box and my comfort zone, hitting the bricks to package it with principal talent (most of which are Icons of the industry) before pitching… Thus presenting a package much too legit to infringe on in any way. What do you think?

    1. Pelegrin

      That’s not true. You can copyright a concept. I imagine you mean the reality show format. It’s what’s called “thin copyright” protection but there is some protection. People sue based on reality show theft often. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose. But there is some protection and the ability too sue. There is no blanket prohibition.

  6. low level exec.

    I worked for an A-list prod. company with a studio deal that read both TV and movies. I’ve been an assistant and story editor before moving up. What I will agree with Chad on is that that seeing a WGA with the reg # on the cover sheet ‘could’ create a bias, for me. We read tons of scripts and the ones that aren’t coming (well, in the olden days) with agency or management covers – we knew were from unrepped writers – so it’s not like it’s a dead giveaway anyway. And I didn’t have a bias if they were unrepped – I LOVED finding new excellent writers without representation. It’s how I got in good with my bosses and moved up in my career. So I was more than willing to read new writers (as long as submitted through proper channels that is).
    However, more often than not – I could to turn to page 1 – and that is what would be the red flag. The writing was bad and you could tell the write did very little study of the craft. I would read a few more pages and unless it was outstanding (with crappy formatting problems), I’d stop wasting my time. Many times, I have to admit – these types of writers were the one who listed all their WGA reg info. Just being honest.
    However, I have no bias to the copyright for some reason. Again, these are just personal little biases – but they come from years of experience.

    My advice to new writers is – read a TON of produced scripts in whatever format you want to write for. And study the craft because it is a craft. You have very tough competition and not a lot of time to capture an executive’s eye. make a good impression and it doesn’t matter what is or isn’t on your cover sheet.

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  9. Meredith

    Chad, most PROFESSIONALS already know they have good ideas, so of course they’re not going to make it plain their work is registered with WGA or copyrighted. If they have 10 ideas a day as you say, by the time one possibility is stolen, they have another 9 to replace it and make double or triple off of it. And if they are generating these ideas, they’re not bothering to read this article. The AMATEURS are, because you know you can spike fear with one word in the subject line. If the pros are, they’re bored with life because it has come to the point for them to read about some guy spouting off about his own insecurities when pitching his ideas. Very clever of you, using these ridiculous warnings to get a hundred replies, just for argument’s sake. And since you’re in TV, stick to to TV – Let someone who knows movie screenplays give us advice.

  10. Pingback: Why You Don’t Have to Worry About Protecting Your Script | LA Screenwriter

  11. How-to Reader

    Chad, I’ve been shopping a script unagented – including to agents and managers, of course, and a couple of agents have refused to even look at it if I did not WGA register AND/or copyright it first. Again, this is movies, not TV, but your comments worry me, if only because readers do tend to have all those ‘little rules’ they use to tag scripts on sight as ‘unprofessional’ for whatever reason, and to justify just scanning them diagonally, (if that). I understand what you’re saying about TV (and have written for 5 or 6 series myself overseas), but I really would like to know if this is really another of those little prejudices that will handicap a film script. Jesus I wish people would stop doing that kind of crap. Ditto for obsessing over this minor format variation or that!

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  13. Chad GervichChad Gervich Post author

    Hey, folks—

    Thanks again for all the responses, and I wanted to get back to some of you here. (FYI—I’ll respond to others in the actual blog over the next few weeks… like Howard’s interesting public domain question.)


    @ MICHAEL—

    I did not steal your lost chupacabra idea! Read our scripts again—your main character’s name is Bill… mine’s Bob. You story takes place in July, 1972… mine’s June. Yours ends with the school blowing up… mine ends with the school falling in. Totally different. Also, mine’s a musical.

    @ JONI—

    Thanks for the kind words! As for protecting novels, I’ll be honest… this is not my area of expertise, so I’m probably not the best person to tackle this question. HOWEVER…

    Brian Klems, my old editor at “Writers Digest” magazine, writes a great blog for WD called “Questions & Quandries,” which deals with EXACTLY these kinds of questions—in the world of fiction and publishing. Drop him an email and tell him I sent you… he’ll answer your question in-depth on the blog, and do a much better job than I could. Here’s the link…

    @ NOT ME—

    While I appreciate the flattering sentiment, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t say this… but I am not generally considered a super-high level of writer—especially in the world of traditional scripted television. And I’m certainly nowhere close to the level of someone like J.J. Abrams or Dan Harmon. Hopefully some day I will be… but I’m not quite there yet.

    I’m not saying this to be humble… I’m saying this to be upfront and honest.

    Having said that… I’ve been a writer, a producer, an executive, a reader, an assistant. I’ve had successes in different genres and different mediums… and I think it’s given me insights and perspectives that other people don’t always get. What I try to bring to this column—and my career in general—is truths I’ve found working in different areas of the industry.

    I also say this because I’m NOT that far ahead of you. It feels to me like only recently that I was desperately trying to get an agent, an exec, ANYONE to read my specs. It also feels, every day, like I’m just barely holding on to what little I’ve earned… and I’m only one mistake, or bad script, or blown opportunity away from slipping back down to being a writers assistant, or a PA, or out of the industry altogether.

    Maybe this is just the neuroses of being a writer… maybe it’s accurate… I don’t know… but when I give advice in this column, I’m not giving it from some high-up place of ultimate knowledge, dispensing it down to the “little guys” like you. Yes, it’s based on many years and jobs in the industry, but it’s also the perspective of someone who, just like you, is still very much climbing the ladder.

    @ LENNY—

    First of all, I never said readers “frown upon” putting WGA registration or copyright on a script.

    (I believe the words I use above are: “it’s a subtle registering,” and readers are “already in a biased frame of mind.” …Which is not the same as saying “it is frowned upon.”)

    In fact, I think most readers would probably say, “Sure, go ahead, do it.”

    But that doesn’t change the fact that doing it SENDS A SIGNAL. And that signal is: “I am protecting my work because I’m worried about it being stolen.”

    And PROFESSIONAL writers do not send that signal.

    Secondly, you ask for examples (which is ironic, considering that you emphatically state that “studios do steal ideas,” then support it only with “believe me”)…

    In my five years as a development exec, working with every broadcast network in town, I never once received a script from a working, professional writer that had a copyright or WGA number on it. (FYI—I haven’t been an exec since 2005, so I don’t remember every script I received. But I’m still pretty confident.)

    Now, most of these scripts were coming through agents or managers, which adds another level of protection. And you could argue that writers we were dealing with were at a level where they “didn’t need to worry” about their work being stolen.

    But this proves my point.

    When I send my script somewhere, I want to be viewed as a PROFESSIONAL. I want readers to read it with THE SAME MINDSET they’d use to read a script by David Hornsby, or Mike Schur, or Reich & Cohen. I do not want them pre-judging me or my work, even unconsciously, because they have seen something that puts me in the category of “AMATEUR.”

    There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur… as Don says above, “that’s the start of success”… but I don’t want to be judged differently because of it.

    Thirdly, you say you work for a studio, although you don’t say whether it’s a TV studio or a movie studio… and there’s a HUGE difference. Movies are bought, sold, and developed COMPLETELY differently than TV shows. They are two totally different worlds.

    More importantly, this blog does not talk about movies. In fact, I explicitly say I’ve never worked in movies… I don’t know much about movies… and this blog is not about movies. So if you want to argue that ideas get stolen in movies… fine. I may or may not agree with you, but I can’t argue against you.

    But shows rarely—and I mean RARELY—get stolen in television… and most of the time, when someone thinks they’ve been ripped off, they’re wrong.

    As I’ve stated repeatedly… an IDEA can not be stolen, because an IDEA can not be legally owned. Only the execution can be owned.

    And television, much more than movies, is ALL ABOUT THE WRITER’S EXECUTION.

    Now, if you’ve executed a TV script that CAN be stolen, that can be done without you, you didn’t execute it well enough to make it unique, to make it more than an IDEA. And that’s your own fault, your own lack of protection.

    Which is why… when a network or studio finds a young writer who executes something in a unique way, they don’t want to LOSE that writer… they want to EMBRACE that writer. That’s what makes television tick… writers and showrunners with unique voices and visions.

    After all, on paper, “The Cosby Show” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” are similar family shows: befuddled dads try to navigate marriage, family, and fatherhood. Are you gonna tell me Phil Rosenthal ripped off Ed Weinberger, Mike Leeson and Bill Cosby’s “idea?” No… because even though the ideas are close, the writers’ executions make them totally unique.

    Finally, for the record—I have never once said writers should NOT register or copyright work… just that they shouldn’t plaster it on the front page of their script. (In fact, I pretty clearly wrote, “If you want to pay to register or copyright your work… go for it,” and then provided the links.) It may or may not bring you the protection you want, but hey—if it helps you sleep at night, do what you gotta do.

    I do, however, advocate not doing something simple that could color an agent or executive’s read.

    In other words, protect yourself in two ways. One: from being ripped off, and two: from looking amateurish.

    There are enough cards stacked against you… why add to the pile yourself?

    …Especially in television, where the NUMBER-ONE THING execs and producers want to find is a writer with a strong voice and vision. And if you don’t have that?… You’re not a very valuable (or protect-able) writer to begin with.

  14. Not Me

    Follow up:

    I suspect that accomplished writers like Chad do not run into the same issues regarding idea theft that smaller, and relatively unknown writers like me do. And maybe that is where he is coming from. So I get it.

    And I also believe that he has a point about maybe looking amateurish…if you are a recognized pro.

    Studios aren’t going to steal Chad’s, or JJ’s, or any other top shelf writer’ ideas – they could make a serious stink.

    On the other hand, they are very likely to steal mine (as previously discussed) because I’m just a little guy.

    Now, as weird as this may sound, when my spec ideas were stolen, it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I knew then that I had what it took to be produced. Sure…they got me. And I learned a lesson. But I also learned that if my material is good enough for them to steal, then I am on the right track to begin with. And for what it is worth, the company that stole my spec’s ideas is a giant in the industry. I never would have thought it possible…until I saw my ideas appear on screen. Talk about a reality check. Side note: I met a cast member from this show by total coinky dink when I was on the lot for something else. Over lunch at the commissary, she read my spec script, and fell in love with it, and promised to take it to the producers. Now, I don’t take any stock in that she actually did, but one never knows.

    About a week later, I missed a call from a 310 number. I immediately called them back, and it was the executive producer’s office. I composed myself, identified myself, and asked if I could somehow be of service. He declined to talk to me on the phone. So I notified my agent, and he followed up with them, and they denied ever calling me. Shortly after that, my spec was chopped up into 4 episodes.

    BTW: I don’t dispute Chad. I personally think he’s an awesome writer, and I wish I had that level of success. Maybe someday.

  15. Lenny

    I’m a reader for a studio. Always, always put a copyright logo and date with WGA registered number on every piece of work you write and submit. Studios do steal ideas, believe me. I don’t know where Chad got this idea from that it is frowned upon by readers, never heard of it before??? Can you give some examples of studios where this actually happens Chad?

  16. Not Me

    As someone who has been ripped off, I find myself at odds with the perspective printed here. In 1992, I generated 2 scripts for a a big series. One spec, they ignored completely, and now that I look back on it, they were right to do so. As for the other, the production company did not steal the exact story lines, but they took some very important key elements of my script, and then presented them along 4 different episodes over the course of the season. And while I have heard the arguments about “You can’t copyright an idea” and I signed the release as well, in my particular case, they outright stole my material. My agent/lawyer at the time (I have since moved on) agreed with me, but ultimately abandoned pursuing it saying that the verbiage in the initial release that was signed trumped his ability to fight it, and ultimately it would get me blacklisted anyway. So I swallowed my pride.

    Now, is it POSSIBLE that the production company/studio already had these ideas? Sure. Is it possible that others had submitted these ideas? Sure. I’ll go there on both fronts.

    BUT to take 4 very creative ideas and include them in productions over the course of the following season is outside of that scope of purview, if you ask me.

    So, in retrospect, I am very leery about signing any releases that my current agent has not scrutinized. I register every script with WGA (and by the way, I include a treatment, my personal synopsis, and logline with each submission in the script – saves money that way.)

    I’m not sure that putting your WGA number on the cover makes you look amateurish. I say err on the side of caution. And I believe that it lends a little bit of credibility, not necessarily paranoia. But hey, what do I know?

  17. George

    [So you have to ask yourself: do you want to understand how things ARE and give yourself the most prepared, educated shot of breaking in?…

    Or do you want to believe in how things SHOULD be, and weaken your chances?]


    As a creative writer, you must appreciate the utter Hollywood irony in your above advice….?

  18. George

    >>>So you have to ask yourself: do you want to understand how things ARE and give yourself the most prepared, educated shot of breaking in?…

    Or do you want to believe in how things SHOULD be, and weaken your chances?<<;-)

    That Wilde guy sums it up:

    “There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.”

  19. Chad GervichChad Gervich Post author

    K. Rowe–

    This may help answer your question re: dealing with foreign countries. I copied it directly from the US Copyright Office website:

    Is my copyright good in other countries?

    The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, we honor each other’s citizens’ copyrights. However, the United States does not have such copyright relationships with every country. For a listing of countries and the nature of their copyright relations with the United States, see Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States.

  20. Joni

    Chad, I cannot thank you enough for this article. This really opened my eyes and mind to what’s really out there and how REAL professionals think, act, work and sell. I do, however, have a question. Do the same rules you set forth here apply to novel writing as well? I don’t write scripts; I’m working on a novel now and I know the same “thousands have written your story before” mantra applies, but does everything else also apply – as in how to stand out to get published, how a potential TV producer eyes your book, etc.? Also, does a novelist have to be more proactive with legal protection, or does the same rule that applies to TV writers in that respect also apply to a potential novelist too?

    Once again, thank you for taking me into a entirely new world. I can’t wait to listen to your show and read more of your articles!

  21. Chris

    I would stress the point that half-baked ideas sent in by an amateur without any credentials do indeed have a tendency to get stolen. I know about several instances where producers, sometimes part-time teachers at renowned creative writing-courses at universities, took someone’s sketchy idea, gave it to a professional writer and told him: Make that work for me! Of course, this only backs up your point, Chad: One should try to makes one’s work as good as possible before handing ist out… ESPECIALLY since it minimizes the chance for it to get stolen!

  22. Chad GervichChad Gervich Post author

    Hey, guys—

    Thanks a million for all the posts and emails—keep ’em coming! (I have gotten a TON of emails, many of which I’ll respond to over the next few weeks.)

    There are some great points and responses posted here, so I wanted to quickly respond…

    First of all, as I point out, I am writing here mostly about TELEVISION. As a creative medium, TV works TOTALLY differently than film. As I say above, it is MUCH harder (read: “almost impossible”) to steal a TV show… because if an exec or producer loves a TV show, they NEED the writer. It is much harder to do a TV show without the original writer than a movie.

    Now, moving on to some of your posts…

    EVAN—you are exactly right: “it is economic fact that an excellent idea, executed by the right writer, made into a movie by the right film producer… can be worth a fortune.” But that’s the whole point—an “excellent idea” is only “worth a fortune” once it’s been “EXECUTED BY THE RIGHT WRITER.”

    Once it’s been executed on paper, it’s protectable; the idea itself… not protectable. As an idea, it’s completely worthless… because EXECUTION IS EVERYTHING. You and I could have the EXACT SAME IDEA—I could even “steal” the idea from you—and we’d write two completely different scripts. Both scripts would be considered wholly original and protectable on their own. If mine was executed better than yours, and sold, you probably wouldn’t have legal grounds for a lawsuit… because even though you might think I stole your idea, an unexecuted idea is A) not legally protectable, and B) not creatively valuable. Only the execution matters.

    JEFF & GEORGE—I can’t disagree with you about the legal functions of copyright. And I don’t disagree with you about how it SHOULD work on a script… but that’s not how it actually DOES work. Seeing a copyright symbol, or a WGA number, shouldn’t affect an exec or agent’s reading of your script… but unfortunately, that’s not the reality.

    When a reader sees the copyright symbol or WGA registration, they never say, “What?! They’ve protected their work? What an idiot—I’m not reading this!” Rather, it a subtle registering of, “Oh, they’re one of *those* guys. Clearly, a newbie. Okay, let’s take a look…”

    In other words, they’re already in a biased frame of mind before they even begin reading your script.

    Personally, I don’t believe this bias is worth putting on the copyright/WGA registration… especially in TV, where if an executive loves your script, she won’t be trying to figure out how to do it WITHOUT you, she’ll be scrambling to figure out how to do it WITH YOU. TV, unlike film, is a writer-driven medium so TV execs aren’t looking for great one-off ideas (like movies); they’re looking for great writers and showrunners.

    I promise you: you will not copyrights on WGA numbers on pilots from Dan Harmon, J.J. Abrams, Greg Daniels, Bill Lawrence, or Mike Royce. And you can argue that’s because they’re established writers, and I’d say, “Yeah—that’s the point.” They’re professionals, and when an exec picks up my script, I want her going into it with the same mindset she has reading a pilot from Dan Harmon, J.J. Abrams, Greg Daniels, Bill Lawrence, or Mike Royce. I don’t want her pre-judging me based on something which isn’t that valuable anyway.

    SHOULD things work this way? Probably not.

    DO they? Yes.

    So you have to ask yourself: do you want to understand how things ARE and give yourself the most prepared, educated shot of breaking in?…

    Or do you want to believe in how things SHOULD be, and weaken your chances?

  23. George

    >>> …copyright law provides for enhanced damages for “willful” infringement. That the work bore a copyright notice tends to show a willful violation and to negate a claim of innocent infringement. See 17 U.S.C. 505(c).

    So there are good reasons for registering your script and putting copyright notice on it, and there really aren’t any good reasons not to.<<<

    Good article, Chad. Still–

    I agree with Counselor Gallen.

    Although your article spoke (primarily) to TV scripts, I suggest that if a reader intrinsically presupposes a screenplay is "amateur" simply because a copyright notice is on the title page… perhaps there is a reason said reader is a frustrated writer reading about other people's chubacabras.

    I like the colored condoms graphic; however, just because someone doesn't like the esoteric rule of eschewing condoms, does not mean they should be dismissed.

    Practicing "safe-scripting" seems to have more upside than down — although I do admit it's tough to get a condom over 110 pages.

    On we go…

  24. Jeff Gallen

    As a lawyer, I recommend copyrighting your script and putting a notice of copyright on it. First,copyright registration is a prerequisite for certain legal remedies, including statutory damages and attorney’s fees. Second, copyright law provides for enhanced damages for “willful” infringement. That the work bore a copyright notice tends to show a willful violation and to negate a claim of innocent infringement. See 17 U.S.C. 505(c).

    So there are good reasons for registering your script and putting copyright notice on it, and there really aren’t any good reasons not to.

  25. Stephanie Hilpert

    The fact is Hollywood takes ideas and twists them. I’m surprised that these writers are completely not in touch with the up and coming screenwriters of today AND their struggles. I can see why most people think the movies of today suck. Most of you have no idea what is going on outside of your little world called Hollywood. The people reading these articles are kissing your ass for the most part. I want to respect this publication, I really do. You are not making it easy for me.

  26. Ron SuppaRon Suppa

    Very good column, full of truth, and your own very unique voice proves your point. I would add that an alleged thief also needs to be proven to have had access to the copyrighted material (i.e. two people could write the same movie and the one who wrote it first doesn’t “win” unless he/she can prove that the other writer had access to the first writer’s material before writing their own.) Also there are statutory benefits in any eventual litigation to have actually copyrighted your work before you file a claim for infringement.

  27. Evan

    In the capitalist “winner take all” system, you are correct that ideas a considered a dime a dozen. However, it is economic fact that an excellent idea, executed by the right writer, made into a movie by the right film producer, that can be worth a fortune.

    That said, some great ideas are difficult to steal if you (1) place them into written form, and (2) apply for a federally registered copyright, the only form of copyright that allows you to sue for infringement. Few of you knew this fact, I suspect.

    Even though ideas are a dime a dozen, it is the masterful execution of unique ideas that have made blockbuster films. Often your idea is more valuable that you! I’ll bet few of you will ever hear someone who reads your script say, behind your back, something like “This idea is brilliant! Too bad the scriptwriter is unable to pull it off. You know, I’ll bet __________ (famous producer here) would know exactly what scriptwriter could do this justice!”

    They’re not going to cut you in, because by acknowledging your role (even if considered of little consequence, I mean, you’re from the “dime a dozen” crowd) they risk muddying the waters! What producer wants to carry that baggage into a movie that could become a blockbuster… or bust?

    The fact is that forcing yourself to write, then getting a federally registered copyright (under $100) will discourage idea theft. It’s not so much that someone isn’t going to “steal” an idea they can take for free. Rather, it’s the idea (pun intended) of “muddying the waters” in your favor.

    Now true, if I was on the side of the fence where I could treat ideas like they were a dime a dozen, and pick and choose any idea I wanted from the huge sea of unpublished scripts, the last thing I want is for you to muddy the waters (sorry to keep belaboring that phrase). I would definitely recommend you NOT get a federally registered copyright. It’s a lot easier if I can read scripts and, if I like the idea — maybe it’s the most unique and fresh idea I’ve heard in ages — decide if I like the scriptwriter? If not, I take the idea like the writer of this article pointed out, and find a scriptwriter I do like. This is a lot easier, I would imagine, if I knew the script was not likely federally registered in the Copyright Office. (Otherwise, I risk “infringement” and even if I win, any legal battle is time consuming, distracting, and potentially controversial if I do get this script funded.)

    Now on the otherhand, I cannot imagine a legit studio (or publisher if a literary work) that could care less if you got your work federally registered. I think the writer of this article is write that you shouldn’t rub their noses in your registered copyright. You could casually mention it as an aside, but no need to put it down on the work. However, I personally don’t see how it necessarily brands you as an amateur by doing so (if cited properly and not unprofessionally).

  28. Don

    One comment. Don’t discount the paper trail that establishes a point in time. Copyright or WGA is for that purpose, the trail; is cheap and avoids you having a dispute over “if” the envelope was truly licked on June 4th 🙂

    And a bit of caution and prudence versus caution to the wind does improve opportunities for success

    Until there is that 10 idea a day success and they’re clamoring at your door, aren’t you an amateur. Who cares. Don’t be ashamed that’s the start to success

  29. Howard Jones

    Hi Chad,

    I just finished reading your article in Script Magazine on the “truth
    about protecting your work,” and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    A query: Are works of history in the public domain?

    I have heard several views on this matter, both in and out of the
    classroom, and wondered if you can provide some information.


    Howard Jones
    University Research Professor History
    University of Alabama
    Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0212

  30. Roberta

    I cringe when I hear my friend carry on about how she knows someone that had their script idea stolen and for me to not talk to anyone about movie ideas. I will pass your article over to her so maybe she can calm down a little. Thank you. 🙂