Writers and Producers are always concerned that their work (i.e. ideas, treatments, and screenplays) will be stolen. Unfortunately, whenever you convey your idea to someone, there is really no one way to protect it. However, there are specific steps that you can take to increase legal control of your work. The following steps are not a guarantee against theft, but can be used as a deterrent or as a way to build evidence for trial, if necessary. A full discussion of this topic is not within the scope of this article; however, this article will provide writers and producers with the basic steps to control their work.
Writers Guild of America
Many writers are concerned about theft even before they write the first draft of the screenplay. They know that notes, outlines and general ideas are vulnerable to theft during the initial writing phase. To help address this concern the Writers Guild of America (WGA) provides a registration service to assist writers in the early phases of development. This is important since the U.S. Copyright office does not copyright notes, outlines or general ideas.
During the initial phases of developing your work, use the WGA to register outlines, notes and written ideas. Although filing with the WGA does not establish statutory ownership, it does provide a dated record of the writerÕs claim to authorship and possession of the material being registered. This can be very important because many legal disputes turn on who first possessed the idea. If necessary, WGA registration serves to provide evidence at trial. Registration fees are $20 for non-members and $10 for members. To register your work and receive more information go to www.wga.org or call the Writers Guild of America, West at (323) 951-4000 or (800) 548-4532.
Whenever writers and producers are pitching ideas and submitting screenplays, they should protect themselves by creating a paper trail. For example, if you are pitching your project at meetings while your screenplay is still under development, follow-up with a thank you letter. The letter serves two purposes: it reemphasizes your project and it creates a record of various material facts such as: proof of the meeting, proof you pitched the idea, proof of the date you communicated the idea, etc. If you are submitting screenplays by mail or email always include a cover letter and follow up with an email to confirm they have received it. Paper trails are important because access to your material is crucial evidence at trial to prove copyright infringement.
When you have completed your first draft of your screenplay, you should formalize protection by registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering your screenplay is proof of ownership. The U.S. Copyright Act protects literary works, dramatic works, motion pictures, audio visual works, etc. when these original works of authorship are Òfixed in a tangible medium.Ó Fixed in tangible medium simply means written down or recorded (i.e. treatment, screenplay, video, film, etc.) In other words, you own the copyright in your work the moment you write it down or record it. Filing a copyright registration form with the U.S. copyright Office gives you protection not otherwise available. If you discover that someone has stolen your work, you can file a copyright infringement case where the court can stop the infringer from using your work and possibly award monetary damages. Currently, the filing fee is $30. To order forms and receive additional information on copyright registration go to www.copyright.gov or call the U.S. Copyright Office at 202.707.9100.
Every established writer and producer followed leads that ultimately culminated in their first option or sale. So, if you are an aspiring writer or producer, you should pursue all credible leads to get your script read by studios, production companies, investors, etc. Remember, there are no guarantees against theft; however, the prudent writer and producer, whether aspiring or established, should take important steps to protect their work. Use the WGA registration service for ideas, concepts and outlines that cannot be registered with the U.S. Copyright office. Create a paper trail while pitching your idea (and submitting your screenplay) for proof of access to your material. And finally, once you have completed your first draft of the screenplay, for the best protection, register your work with the U.S. Copyright office.