You have finally hit “Fade Out” on that script you have been working on for months. It’s now going into a round of rewrites that you are focusing all your attention on and shortly after… you will finally be ready to take it out on the market.
It’s a powerful script, it has an amazing story, compelling characters and a twist that has never been seen before in any movie ever made… but uh oh, what if it’s so good that someone steals it from you? Because yes, it’s that good!
That’s when copyright comes in handy. Before you take your script out to anyone, I always recommend you copyright your script first. While you can’t copyright an idea, you can copyright the expression of an idea which is exactly what your script is.
The best places to copyright your script are the US Copyright Office and the Writers Guild of America.
What Is A Copyright?
As an author, you automatically have copyright on the work you create. What does that mean? That basically means that when you write a script, you automatically own the rights to it (if it’s based on your original idea obviously).
So why copyright? Well, it’s not to get the copyright that you submit your script to the US Copyright Office or to the Writers Guild of America. Why do you do it then? To prove that this work is indeed yours.
The difficulties are that, if someone steals your work, you can’t always prove that you wrote it first. Right? That’s when copyright is useful and why it’s best to copyright your script before anyone else reads it because the copyright stamp will have the exact date on it. If you copyright your script once half of Hollywood has read it already and all your friends from High School did too, that copyright is suddenly a lot less useful.
What that means is that if say a producer was to steal your script or another writer was to put his or her name on it, you would be able to prove that you have a copyright on this specific date (registration date) that took place before they got their hands on it… Say, if the earliest draft they can provide is on December 10, 2021 but you have a copyright dated June 5, 2021, it becomes evident that you are the owner of the work since you can provide an earlier copy.
Again, anything you write belongs to you automatically, for free. But it is worth it to purchase a copyright certificate through the US Copyright Office or the Writers Guild of America that can prove that you own this specific piece of work.
They both offer copyright services.
What Can You Copyright?
As stated earlier in this article, you cannot copyright an idea. However, you can copyright the expression of an idea which can be an outline, a treatment, a movie script, a TV spec or pilot, or a play.
Additionally, you can also copyright text you wrote for your website, artwork, photographs and any other form of authorship.
Should You Put The Copyright Number On Your Script Title Page?
Never. I don’t care that some do it, it’s actually very counterproductive.
Putting your copyright number on your title page doesn’t only look amateurish, it also gives away precious information to whoever wants to steal your script from you (if anyone ever wanted to, but please remember that’s quite rare). You don’t want anyone but yourself to know your copyright number.
However, if you feel like you should give an indicator that your script is under copyright, you could add the symbol ©. But frankly, it’s not necessary. Most people will assume your script is registered anyway… although most of the time, scripts aren’t.
Why Should You Copyright Your Script?
Why not? After all, it will give you peace of mind to know that you can prove this script belongs to you. And no, an unopened email you sent yourself will not work the same as an official copyright certificate from either the US Copyright Office or the Writers Guild of America.
What’s The Difference Between The US Copyright Office and The Writers Guild of America?
Most often than not, price is a big factor when writers decide between one or the other.
For copyright of a movie script, the Writers Guild of America will ask for $10 for members and $25 for non-members.
As far as the US Copyright Office, the copyright will be around $45 if you do it online and about $125 if you do it over mail (paper application).
So, aside from the price, What Are Some Of The Other Differences?
The Writers Guild of America protects your script for five years only (renewable), while the copyright with the US Library of Congress Copyright Office lasts a lifetime and an additional 70 years.
The Writers Guild of America’s copyright is not as powerful when seeking protection in court. But it is legit and does prove that you own copyright to your work. If you go for the US Copyright Office, you will get full protection, meaning that if you win, your attorney fees and damages would most likely be covered and that’s a relief given how expensive it is to go to court over anything, copyright infringement included.
However, remember that when you register your script with the US copyright, it takes about six months until you receive a confirmation that your script is under copyright. Therefore, if you need to sue someone within these 6 months after sending in your application, you will need to pay an additional fee to the US Copyright Office, since your application hasn’t been processed yet.
Additionally, if you submit your script too late for copyright with the US Copyright Office, you will not benefit from recovering your attorney fees or damages in the lawsuit. So make sure you file your copyright application as soon as possible!
So, why would someone consider the Writers Guild of America instead of the US Copyright Office? The WGA is industry standard. Just the name is trustworthy (as it should be). Their costs are lower (although you need to renew your script every five years) but they will send an employee to court to testify and confirm the date of registration of your copyright.
Overall, The Writers Guild of America is considered the industry standard and sends someone to court (to confirm date of copyright) and offers solid proof of copyright and the US copyright Office will give you more protection in court and if you win, will pay back some of your fees.
What Is Considered Stolen And How To Prove It?
That’s when the topic gets a little more complicated… or a lot more!
There are strict rules when determining what is really copied and it won’t be an easy battle most likely (unless someone puts their name on your script without changing anything to it).
When you are accusing someone of copyright infringement, you need to be able to prove it. And the court will then take the two scripts and compare them, side by side through different tests that will give them a sense of the overall concept and feel of the two scripts. Is it extremely similar? Is it the same plot, characters, scenes, and maybe even worse… is it the same text?
That’s how they’ll figure out if your work was indeed stolen. Keep in mind, there’s a chance you go to court and lose your case, even if deep down you are certain your work was stolen.
What Else Can You Do To Protect Your Script?
I always recommend that you keep a record of everyone you send your script to and the date you submitted your script to them. This will help you keep track of where your script went and if anyone from the list suddenly writes the exact same script or clearly copy-paste parts of it, it will be much easier to spot.
That also means only submit your script by email, since it’s easy to prove you send someone a script on XYZ date when you have an email to show.
Additionally, you might want to inform your friends or other readers (not professionals) you send the script to that they cannot share this script without your approval. Producers, managers and agents already know that, so no need to let them know (it would make you look quite bad to do so) but you might want to when you share it with non-industry folks for feedback.
Does Stealing Happen Often?
Believe it or not but cases where your script is being stolen are extremely rare. In Hollywood, most producers build their entire career based on their reputation. It’s rare to find someone who would be willing to take the risk of stealing something and getting sued, because if they lose in court, no one will want to work with them again.
Additionally, it’s much cheaper for a producer to pay an upcoming writer for the rights to their script and hire another writer to rewrite it legally than to steal your script.
More subtle steals happen… but again, you can’t really protect an idea. Does that mean you shouldn’t share any ideas ever? Not necessarily. At the beginning of your career, you want to be known as someone who comes up with ideas often and easily. It’s more of a risk in your young career to not share an idea and not letting yourself be known, than to take the risk to share.
But as always, choose who you share your ideas with. Don’t go on Twitter and tell the world about it, but do talk to producers and industry professionals. That will get your name on the map and into the right places.
In conclusion, do copyright your screenplay with either the US Copyright Office or the Writers Guild of America, keep a list of who reads your script and when, and… remember, getting a script stolen in Hollywood is a rarity if you send it to professionals only.
I hope this article was helpful. If you have any additional questions or want more information, I advise that you talk to an entertainment or copyright lawyer since they will be in the best position to advise you legally.