The world’s first copyright law, the Statute of Anne was enacted in England in 1710.
Script Copyright - Part I: You can’t copyright an idea!
Let’s say you have a great idea and you don’t want anyone to steal it because you think it is very original. You want to own your “baby” and want to protect it. So you probably have thought about copyrighting the idea given it's intellectual properties. Unfortunately you can’t copyright an idea or concept. The law says so:
Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act specifically states: “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embodied in such work.”
So how can you protect your idea or concept? Especially as we writers want and need to share our ideas with others to either get some, constructive critism, feedback or help so that we may further develop our idea. It depends on a couple of things. Let’s say you are at the beginning of a developing idea. You only have a basic idea, logline or concept:
First of all you should ask yourself, is your idea for a short film screenplay project or do you aim to use it for a feature film or a TV project? If it is a long-term project and you will invest a lot of work and hours into it, you may at first want to share your idea with a few trusted friends or family rather than someone related to the industry, directly or indirectly. Even if it’s unlikely someone will steal your idea, you never know for sure.
If the idea is for a short film, you'll probably be done writing and polishing it quickly, therefore you won’t invest too much work into it. So if someone does end up stealing it, not too much harm is done; hopefully the pain won't sting as much. Having said that, you still might be attached to your project. Some short film screenplays or the production behind them can lead into a feature film screenplays and a much larger production; think of the "SAW" franchise. So if it is very original you still might want to be careful about who to share your idea with from the get go.
If your idea is for a TV series or feature film you will likely have put a lot of work into it. So you may want to take a different approach. I personally store my ideas in a safe place; backed up on iCloud once they're fleshed out. I only pitch them to trusted others to see how it resonates with them. It could be members of your target audience, people at work, friends/family, professionals I trust.
The most trusted individual I turn to in this case is my editor and sometimes idea partner, my boyfriend. I can always count on him to give me an honest and sincere opinion, without worrying about him being subjective because he's my partner. Then I know if an idea is pitchable and original enough. Generally I’m not scared of sharing my ideas because I know I have my own unique take on story ideas. We are artists; we want to share and garner help in getting our story out there. It’s counterproductive to be too scared of sharing your ideas.
If however you are dealing with legitimate Industry players, do share your ideas and scripts if requested. It is looked upon as being unprofessional in the film industry to not share your ideas.
Script Copyright - Part II: Protecting your “baby” – What to do with your idea?
So if you can’t copyright an idea or concept per se, what can you do with your basic idea, logline or concept?
Write a detailed outline, treatment, etc. of your fully developed story. According to the copyright law your idea is protected like this:
(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:
(1) literary works.
(2) Musical works, including any accompanying words.
(3) Dramatic works, including any accompanying music.
(4) Pantomimes and choreographic works.
(5) Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.
(6) Motion pictures and other audiovisual works.
(7) Sound recordings.
(8) Architectural works.
Therefore, you can copyright your unique take on your basic story idea, but you can’t protect your actual story idea. E.g. Hamlet’s basic story of Romeo and Juliet has been done over and over again.
But beware because copyright refers to evidence that you claimed ownership on a certain date. It doesn’t guarantee protection of intellectual property. Basically, copyright offers no protection, it is just used as evidence you can use as proof in court.
The moment you actually put your take on your idea on paper it is copyrighted anyways, so you don’t necessarily need to copyright it, but given that you want to have proof of the date it has been produced or copyrighted, it is wise to copyright.
Script Copyright - Part III: Protecting your “baby” - Protect your project anyways!
Let’s go in more depth as to why you should copyright your fleshed out idea:
For your own peace of mind. It makes sharing your story easier.
It’s highly unlikely that professional industry players would steal your idea or screenplay, but you want to protect yourself from shady established people, not that you should share your ideas with them anyways (especially when not asked for) but it could happen.
There have been cases where collaborators or other trusted people stole ideas or the whole screenplay. If you think that someone stole your idea, you can contact an experienced lawyer and provide them with all the evidence of ownership. They can then help you decide with what your best approach would be.
Consider that even if you think you have an extremely original idea, some other writer, producer, etc. somewhere else probably has the exact same idea. They might have a different take on your idea, it might be better, it might be worse, in the end it really isn't important. What is important is to take your idea, which you developed into a polished screenplay and get it out there sooner rather than later, before someone else does.
But even if it takes you some time to develop an idea, it doesn’t mean it’s doomed just because someone had the same idea or has developed it already. Your take on the story might be way more original and better developed. Or maybe a production company already has a script based on the same idea as yours but they like your script better or the competition picks up your script looking for a similar idea. It shows that you can create marketable ideas.
At the end of the day what matters is to write the script based on your original idea, to get it out there and move on to the next project. You can only control your own ideas and stories and not what others create or what is going on in Hollywood or wherever else in the world. The good thing is you would have another marketable screenplay to add to your portfolio and demo reel.
Don’t be too squeamish either about sharing your ideas in the film industry. William M. Akers explains this and why in a great way in the chapter “Angsto-o-Rama” in his book “Your Screenplay Sucks”. It’s hilarious and rings true.
And a final piece of advice: It is a good idea to constantly come up with original and fresh ideas, because at the end of the day we writers should be idea generators. Plus, you'll always have lots of ideas ready on hand to pitch or develop.
Script Copyright - Part IV: Protecting your “baby” - How to copyright and protect your idea?
The best way to copyright your project is to copyright it with the U.S. Copyright Office and not how most people think with the Writer’s Guild of America East or West.
The copyright lasts a long time - an author's life plus 70 years. The WGA just lasts 5 or 10 years and then you would have to renew.
You can seek statutory damages and reimbursement of legal fees rather than just actual damages and infringer's (user of work) profits.
Copyright is necessary before filing a lawsuit. Immediate copyright is possible (called expedited registration $580) in case you need to file an immediate lawsuit and haven’t copyrighted your project before.
The only advantage you have with “protecting” your project with the WGA is that they provide you with an employee who will appear and testify regarding the date of the registration, but this rarely happens. The U.S. Copyright Office doesn’t provide such a service.
The below articles give an in depth demonstration as to why it is advised not to use the WGA for your screenplay or project idea registration:
How to register with the U.S. Copyright Office?
Poor Man’s copyright
With the “poor man’s copyright” attempt you basically seal your printed project in an envelope and send it to yourself and keep it unopened until you need it as evidence that your project is yours. It is not a very reliable method of protecting your work, as it can be easily be faked and is therefore not very useful method as proof of ownership. Perhaps that's why they call it the poor man's copyright. By the way, you don’t need this to secure your copyright.
The following homepage explains this in more detail: Copyright Authority
But then again, I read an article where someone said you can make use of the poor man’s copyright as supporting evidence in court to help support your case that your idea is actually in fact yours. If it gives you peace of mind do it, but the U.S. Copyright Office is sufficient.
Do you need to put the copyright symbol on your screenplay?
No. You don’t and shouldn’t. It is enough that it is copyrighted. It is seen as amateurish if you add the symbol onto your screenplay.
Script Copyright - Part V: Exercise, Tip and Selected Links
Read through the articles on this page so you are well informed.
Make regular backups of all stages of your project and copyright your finished screenplay with the U.S. Copyright service.
Aimed at TV-series writers