Screenwriting : Am I stealing? by Doug Nelson

Doug Nelson

Am I stealing?

I have before me a terminally terrible script. I don’t recall from where it came or why I have it – the author’s name is on it – I have no idea who she is. It’s one of those sophomoric teen horror scripts - kids in the woods surrounded by scary monsters. I’ve decided to take the basic premise and write my own version – basically just to see how hard it is to write jejune pabulum. The question is; do you think I’m stealing another’s work?

Tracey Bradley

As a writing exercise, go for it. As a professional or portfolio project it feels sketchy to me. That being said inspiration comes from everywhere and no idea is truly original. I think it really depends on how much yours ends up resembling the original . . . I would tread softly.

Doug Nelson

Different kids, different woods, different monsters - but same basic premise.

Marvin Willson

BE CAREFUL. If you write this script and it becomes successful and the author of the script you are reading can prove you had 'Access" to that script they may have grounds to sue. That said, you cannot protect an idea/premise, only your interpretation of it. Change the story/characters and dialogue, and you should be okay. In theory, there are only seven stories and as long as you use just the premise, the only person who can regard it as stealing is you.

CJ Walley

While you can't protect an idea I'd be wary if the premise is remarkably novel.

Bill Hartin

C'mon, Doug, you and I have traded enough emails in the past that I feel I can be brutally honest with you: Why bother? But if it is as generic as you describe, and you just can't help yourself, you're not stealing as much as you are mimicking 99 per cent of all horror films written and produced - three terrified teenage girls in bikinis, lost in the woods at night for some implausible reason after their goofy boyfriends are killed by a deranged hermit - HEY, that's MY script you're thinking of stealing. Best of luck with it, though. And don't worry, I won't tell a soul.

Marvin Willson

Plus you have kind of admitted on the internet that you are considering doing this... My advice, move on...

Philip Sedgwick

Completely agree with Marvin. Danger Will Robinson, danger!!

Merri Christi Pemberton

Did you say her name was on it? If her name is on it, then I would let her know that you have the script and are not interested. As far as writing another script of your own, which has the basic premises of kids in the woods with scary monsters...I do agree that that is a very basic formula for a horror movie and it's okay to write a script on that formula after you have been inspired by another script. I will say, however, that it has to end there. Use the basic "kids in the woods with monsters" formula, and then make it your "own" flavor. Be as unique and original as you can be.

Merri Christi Pemberton

I do disagree that "ideas" can't be protected. They can be, if you don't share them. That would, however, defeat the purpose of sharing your ideas with those who can or will help you with your film. You can have a layer of protection, a strategy, to hold close to your vest the core elements or ideas that will set your script/film apart from many others. Revealing the general story is fine, people should get an idea of what you have going on, especially if you need to get some help on Stage 32 or similar formula...BUT keep a few things to yourself until it is absolutely necessary to reveal it. The most important secrets of the film I am directing will be unknown even by some of the cast and crew we're hiring until a specified time in the film's production...but it will be a cool surprise when we do have the big reveal.

Doug Nelson

To Bill & the rest of you – I’m retired and never been sued during my four decade long career – I carry a self preservation gene. Having said that: I appreciate you alls concern about my drifting over to the dark side – thank you, but you need not worry. I started this thread to initiate a discussion among fellow writers. I’ve noticed a great deal of paranoia among writers regarding the “theft” of their work. So much so that the paranoia paralyzes writers into being unwilling to expose their work to prevent it being “stolen”. C’mon! You work hard to write a wonderful script that you want made into a movie – but you don’t want anybody to read it? I’m guessing that most are so insecure in their abilities as to be unwilling to share their creativity with others. Look deep into yourself – are you afraid of criticism, failure or success? Let us see your work, let us work together to make it better. We ain’t about to steal it! (Those who do are not writers – don’t worry about it, they can’t pitch it anyway.)

Merri Christi Pemberton

@Doug, I don't believe all screenwriters are insecure if they want to keep their script semi-private. Some may be insecure, but others are just being very business savvy when they are careful in how or who to share a script with. I learned that not everyone is your friend, or have your best interest at heart...so it's best to manage one's ideas and intellectual property with common sense. It's the responsibility of the filmmaker or scriptwriter to be careful in how they share and handle their scripts. Scriptwriters and/or filmmakers worked day and night on their scripts..for several months or over a year. Many of us know that scripts have been copied and used to make money by those who didn't come up with it in the first place and without the original scriptwriter's knowledge...there have been plenty of lawsuits showing that. Most of us can agree that screenwriters should not be too secretive, but no one should be gullible either. It comes down to this: Knowing when to talk, how to talk, and who to talk to, get your script registered with the WGA and copyrighted. Those are very basic, but common sense business savvy. I think most of us heard the say "loose lips sink ship", and that is true in many cases. Also, before one shares too much, it's always good to get an attorney. Indie filmmakers and screenwriters are entrepreneurs who deal with intellectual property...and many of the wise ones will tell them to be careful in managing their intellectual property. You mention that you were retired and never been sued. That doesn't mean that it won't happen..even if you have a strategy or structure to help prevent it. .These days people are more vigilant and proactive in protecting intellectual property, and they have many more communication resources now o find out who stole what and when, and use the internet to broadcast it to the world. Being inspired by an idea is fine...all artists are inspired by ideas and what is around them. SInce you do have a lot of experience, life experience,..then you will be able to create a story that comes from your own unique experiences. The best kind of story is one that comes from your experiences...and you can still use the general idea of kids being in the woods with scary monsters as a jumping off point.

Marvin Willson

@Merri - it's an unfortunate reality that if you get in a room with the big boys to pitch either your own or a clients take on story, you will have to give details. If you hold back it's unlikely you will get very far. The fact you disagree that you can protect ideas, unfortunately doesn't mean you can. You can only protect your interpretation of that idea, nothing more. That said, if you are producing yourself, you can pretty much do what you please. :-) I am not insecure. I alway run my ideas by my management/friends and strangers. My ethos is, if you can write it faster and better than me, go ahead, but the fact remains that most can't and won't.

Marvin Willson

And in closing... Ideas are a-dime-a-dozen. It's the execution that counts. Something most scripts never accomplish.

David Taylor

CALL IT - 'Un Hommage A Jejune Pabulum'.

Beth Fox Heisinger

No, it is not stealing. One cannot copyright an idea. Even titles cannot be copyrighted. (Titles may be trademarked, but that's a whole different gray area) Anyway, just give it your own unique execution. With 30+ films about teens being chased by something dark already produced, I doubt the script you are questioning has an original take itself.

B. O'Malley

Hi Doug. There's no such thing as pure origination, but to not even try? That's the realm of the hack, not the writer.

Doug Nelson

B.O’M If there’s no such thing as “pure origination” – why should I Try? Do you recall Aladdin’s lamp and the I Dream of Genie series? I have an award winning script in production right now that is based on that old well worn story – not bad for an old hack like me.

Doug Nelson

David – I love that title – I’ll probably steal it- thanx.

David Taylor

It is my gift to you. I don't know why but it made me laugh.

David Taylor

PS - Lead characters name can be 'jejune'. I think you are looking at an opportunity for a most ingenious parody.

Doug Nelson

David - could be.

Doug Nelson

Ada - woods is woods.

S. Michael Frost

Whether it's from the epics, like Shakespeare, or from the everyday mundane teen drama, we all draw our inspiration from somewhere. Her story, from your description sounds like it is an every day, run-of-the-mill, teen horror. So as long as you rewrite it in your own story and change enough about it to make it your own, and especially change the essentials, like characters, place, etc. Then, you should be alright. I suggest coming up with your own original idea, and maybe somewhat basing it off of her script.

Mary Hackett

It's a letter of the law vs spirit of the law kind of dilemma. For me, it would be stealing.

Beth Fox Heisinger

It is not "stealing." This is screenwriting. Doug clearly stated, "I've decided to take the basic PREMISE and write my own version." This premise of teens running from a monster, in the woods or not in the woods, figuratively or literally, has been done over and over and over -- Halloween, Friday the 13th, Final Destination, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, blah, blah, blah, et cetera...... This is not original. This is a common horror premise, a general idea. It cannot be copyrighted. Only a specific version, or specific story, or specific execution, written by a specific writer(s) as a single piece of literary work can be copyrighted. Doug does not have an issue here, unless he plagiarizes the script which clearly and obviously he would not do. And, if he comes up with a surprising new twist to this tired premise then he will have done something truly original and creative.

CJ Walley

Well said Beth. Creativity is mercenary and ruthless. Sometimes you consciously follow someone else's inspiration, sometimes you don't even realise you're doing it. I do appreciate the discomfort in the concept, but that's only because it sounds worse than it is.

Charles G. Masi

Yes, but all MY best ideas are stolen.

Doug Nelson

Charles – The best ideas you have are “stolen” by others or is it that you have “stolen” your best ideas from others. I have a short script in the works that was inspired (“stolen” from) by Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. Oh, how evil of me!

Charles G. Masi

Doug --- "The best ideas you have are “stolen” by others or is it that you have “stolen” your best ideas from others." The sentence is ambiguous on purpose because I mean BOTH.

Leslie T. Suhayda

Just an insight to stories, the writers who have experienced the life changing drama in their lives deserve to have their story kept in tact, if their story is sophomoric it is their responsibility to seek the help and collaborate with others to perfect their story and bring it to the screen. My parents story has lived with me all my life, I and my brothers were also on the journey to freedom and my story "Twelve Bells To Freedom" is a World War II love story with devastating loss and the persecution during Russian occupation of Hungary. A story of family and love of their country, with a realization of the value of freedom leading to our riveting escape into Austria. I would not want someone reading my script, titling it Sophomoric and then stealing my life's experience and calling it his or her own.

Doug Nelson

Leslie I’ve already written that story (about 10 years ago) as a novel titled “Faithfully Executed”. Of course I had a different family in Poland caught between the Nazis and the Reds at the end of the war – but even so – you “stole” my story. How very evil of you. Wishing you all the best with it.

Leslie T. Suhayda

Doug, I am sure your story is very impressive, but I assure you nothing like my parents life and events that occurred, everyone has a life's story some are more impressive than others but they are all unique and that is what sets them apart. One story can capture a heart, another shows man's inhumanity to man, but for the viewer it is a chance to escape their daily lives and experience someone Else's and perhaps they can be taken on a journey and learn while they are being entertained.

Doug Nelson

That's the point Leslie. similar stories through different POV or eyes are different stories - they're not stolen.

Rene Claveau

Absolutely not stealing. You're talking about the basic premise, which is a very familiar and often used premise. As long as the details are significantly different, there are a million variations on the same basic premise. Even if the author can point out how you got this script and that your story idea came from it, it doesn't matter because, as stated above, ideas are not protected and the end result will be an entirely different script.

Philip Sedgwick

Regardless of is it stealing... is it worth it? Let's say you've scored a deal and are in pre-production, and some terrible script writer surfaces, claiming you took her/his story. And let's say there's online evidence to prove such contemplation on your part... no matter how a legal proceeding would flesh out as to which party is in the right, or how much an arbitration may cost in legal fees or settlement paid, will the effect of such a delay/nuisance compromise production? That's rhetorical, really. That's what would be on my mind.

J. Brian

I'd say as long as you're not actually taking anything from the original script except the idea, you should be ok. It would suck if you decided to rewrite this as your own and use dialogue and other elements that someone else wrote and then you're taken to court and it's revealed that this person has a copyright on the script you have now. Write your own story.

Other topics in Screenwriting:

register for stage 32 Register / Log In