No matter how strong your writing is on the page, no matter how charming you are in any room, at the end of the day the longevity of your screenwriting career will rest on your ideas. The fear of having those ideas taken from you and passed off as someone else’s is one that we all share. Knowing how to protect your screenplay is thus a good idea to avoid it.
While the reality of the situation isn’t as dire as our fear would have us believe, there are a few things to consider in protecting your ideas and your work.
The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes you should, but the threat of theft is perhaps different than your thinking. So before you start taking steps to make sure nobody takes your billion-dollar movie and leaves you with nothing, you want to have a clear understanding of what may be out there, and what copyright law is designed to protect.
According to the US Copyright Office, this is the definition of copyright:
“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.”
Later on, it states:
“Copyright protects ‘original works of authorship’ that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.”
While your idea can be stolen, if that’s all it is, it’s likely that not much is really being stolen, because that’s all it is: an idea.
If you say you’ve got an idea for a family drama that plays out over many years throughout outer space, that could be Star Wars, but it could also be Interstellar.
An idea cannot be copyrighted.
It is not a tangible item. And when it comes to theft of an intangible item, you can’t really point to anything and say, “That was mine.”
A person may be inspired by your idea and write something of their own, in which case it becomes their “fixed form of tangible expression.
And sometimes, writers hit on the same thing at the same time, independent of each other. It happens all the time in Hollywood, which is why you get situations like this:
So while it may be the case that your idea could, in theory, be “stolen,” technically speaking, it isn’t worth anything. What has real value is the expression of an idea: the script.
This is the one that I think most new writers are afraid of, and it’s why you’ll see some writers ask peer readers to sign NDAs or perhaps not even share their work.
In my experience, this almost never happens. In fact, I haven’t heard of it happening at all. Making a film is a risky business, and no producer is going to dramatically increase the risk by stealing a script. And as far as another writer stealing your script and passing it off as their own? Nobody wants to do that because it’s really easy to prove. Outright theft of a script is, simply put, so difficult to get away with that it isn’t worth the time.
This is actually the most likely to happen, and it can happen surreptitiously. Situations where someone should get credit and compensation, but doesn’t.
These are situations like where a writer was heavily influenced by a book they read, sold a screenplay based on the idea but didn’t give proper credit to the author of the book they heavily borrowed from.
Or a situation where the script was originally written by a team, but the team parted ways, and one writer sold it completely as their own.
Or a where a screenplay is optioned, but then rewritten as a new work, but then the company is bought, and now there have been 8 writers, 7 producers, the director did some work too, and now it’s animated, and also a mini-series, and the writer who first wrote it doesn’t get any credit (or money) for the first script.
Let’s take a look at a few cases to see what it looks like when it actually happens.
This is the case of Tess Gerritsen, best-selling author of a book in which a lone astronaut must survive a series of obstacles in order to safely return to Earth. The book’s title: Gravity.
Gerritsen sold the rights to the book to Katja, a subsidiary of New Line, which was purchased by Warner Bros. shortly before that studio released Alfonso Cuaron’s film Gravity. Gerritsen claimed that Warner Bros. had a fiduciary responsibility to honor her contract with Katja, and owed her $10 million dollars.
Gerritsen’s initial motion was immediately dismissed, as she had no contract whatsoever with Warner Bros. and after numerous attempts to prove fiduciary responsibility was passed to them once they acquired New Line and their subsidiaries, she eventually stopped pursuing legal actions.
In 1998 Joe Quirk published a novel titled Ultimate Rush about a roller-bladed messenger that gets involved with some criminals. Warner Bros. optioned the book, commissioned two screenplays, but then let the option lapse.
In 2010, Sony released Premium Rush with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Quirk alleged that the differences between that film, and his novel Ultimate Rush could be traced from adaptation choices made in those two WB commissioned screenplays, that were then further adapted in the final movie, and he was owed both credit and compensation.
The courts decided that Quirk’s notion of “a change of a change” was not covered under copyright, and Quirk could not prove copyright infringement between his novel and the film, and he lost his case.
In this case, screenwriter Douglas Jordan-Benel brought an action against Universal alleging that their hit film The Purge was based on a script he had written titled Settler’s Day. He had submitted Settler’s Day to an agent at UTA, and the agent “passed” on it, but then one of the agent’s clients, James DeMonaco, wrote and directed The Purge shortly thereafter.
These situations are of course incredibly complicated, but in short, the case was dismissed because Jordan-Benel could not prove his allegation. The Purge and Settler’s Day were perhaps the same idea, but understood in a court of law to be different tangible expressions.
While it may be easy to look at these and say, “These writers had their ideas stolen!” remember that in two of these three cases, the writers had sold rights to their work. Gerritsen and Quirk both sold screen rights to their books.
And in the third, the closest to outright script theft of the three recent cases listed, the plaintiff Jordan-Benel dropped his suit because there was ample evidence in discovery that DeMonaco had actually begun work on what would become The Purge before his agent even saw Settler’s Day.
It seems then, that if you are to be unfortunately embroiled in a legal battle over copyright of your script, it likely won’t be a matter of if someone stole your work and said it was theirs, but something more complicated.
To keep clear track of your work, many writers suggest registering your script. Legally speaking, this is not “copyrighting” a script. It is registering it. Technically, you own the copyright to any work you create the moment it is tangibly expressed, which is a fancy way of saying:
So why go through the extra hoops to register it? It makes it easier to deal with in court if you do run into trouble.
As screenwriters, we have two main resources to use when registering our script.
(Whatever she’s writing here, she’s got the copyright automatically!)
The good ol’ Writer’s Guild of America Registry.
Registering your script (or treatment, outline, concept, poem, lyrics, commercial…the list is long) with the Guild is a way of documenting your authorship on a work.
Some writers include their WGA Registration number on the title page of their script to show it’s been registered. Arc Studio Pro makes it easy to include in your title page.
WGA Registration lasts for 5 years, and allows you to object to proposed credits which automatically kickstarts arbitration by the Guild.
Not a member of the Guild? That’s fine. You can still register, you’ll just have to pay a little more for it than members. (But hey, still less than dues.)
You can also register with the US Copyright Office through the US Library of Congress.
Registration with US Copyright lasts your entire life, plus 70 years. And while you can’t avail yourself of the Guild’s credit arbitration, should you enter any legal battles, you’ll be entitled to win attorney fees and statutory damages.
Registering with the WGA is $10 for members, $20 for non-members. Registering with the US Copyright Office is $35.
So for around $50, you can do both. But should you?
My advice is that you don’t need to register every little thing you start writing. But if you have a project that is getting in the hands of people that can do something with it, it’s good practice to cover your bases. And if you only want to register with one, I’d go with the US Copyright Office. The registration lasts longer, and it gives you more protection in court.
Besides having your work taken, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind as you write screenplays.
If you are writing a true story, you’ll want to make sure that your work is backed up by researched facts, so that you aren’t open to libel or defamation lawsuits.
While you don’t need citations directly in your screenplay, you’ll want to have everything tracked.
The comments feature in Arc Studio Pro is used for feedback, but can also be useful for keeping track of info that is not directly on the page, but could be relevant to development or production.
Additionally, depending on the subject, you may need the rights to the story in the first place. The last thing you want to do is write a great script and realize that you’re not legally allowed to do anything with it.
Don’t get caught on the other side of the table.
While you as the writer won’t be responsible for anything (risks are assumed by your employer) it is helpful to have a sense of where the project came from, other writers’ involvement, and development history. Just so you know what you may be getting into.
And it should go without saying…but I’ll give this advice as well: Don’t take another writer’s work and pass it off as your own.
There are situations where the script itself is valuable, and you want to make sure that the whole world doesn’t have access to it.
This means keeping an eye on any printouts (if you even use those anymore) but mainly keeping access limited. You can do this by keeping your script on a flash drive, but many writers like to keep online backups. One of the great things about Arc Studio Pro is that it has strong data encryption, so you can rest easy knowing that you can both share and store your work securely!
Regardless of protections, you have to be comfortable with sharing your work. It’s crucial to the process.
At the end of the day, you’re taking a risk by putting anything out into the world. These are protections and considerations that will help, but some amount of risk will always be there. Take precautions, but trust that if you do good work you will be recognized fairly for it.