Screenwriting : Copyright. by Robert Franklin


If a writer lives in the USA, or any nation for that mater ... is there a need for that writer to copyright a script/s internationally ... as well as their homeland ... and if so, how do, and where do, we go about doing that? Thx!

Chris Courtney Martin

My lawyer always recommends a copyright. But I'm cheap, so I settle for registering with the WGA. Both are great precautions but the main difference (as was explained to me) is in the event that someone steals your work, a copyright will absolve you of court fees if you must litigate. Establishing chain of ownership is the bottom line, though, so in most cases you'll be fine as long as you can prove it's your IP. The good news is lawsuits are far more expensive and damaging than just paying a writer for their idea, so very rarely will you even have a real case of theft.

Chris Courtney Martin

Also, the copyright is simple and you just go to a website and do it electronically. It's the price that gives me pause-- about 50 bucks for a screenplay.

Juliana Acosta

I've used the government agency in the past.

Beth Fox Heisinger (Frequently Asked Questions) See: Is my copyright good in other countries? Scroll further down... there is more information about international concerns. :) Plus... Your work is already under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form, i.e., a screenplay. Registering a claim of copyright is voluntary; it gives you stronger legal standing should you need one in a court of law, say, to bring a lawsuit. A simple, single registration for a spec script costs $35 (single author, same claimant, one work, not for hire). Keep in mind, registering with the WGA only lasts 5 years, then they purge the database. Whereas copyright lasts your lifetime plus 70 years (works created after 1/1/1978). :) Here's a pdf of copyright registration info and fees: :)

Victor Titimas

Sorry for looking "evil", but couldn't they steal your screenplay and if you decide to sue them, they will get the best lawyers, those you can't afford, and it would be a matter of who's got more money to keep up the legal battle until you lose in utter financial ruin?? Just a noob's opinion...:)

Robert Franklin

Thx, guys. I have been using the copyright office and WGA ... just needed guidance.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Not sure who "they" are in your scenario, Victor, but there's really no need for paranoia. Just practical knowledge. Get the facts. In a rare situation, and, say, for a multi-billion-dollar company, it is far cheaper and way less of a hassle to just buy a script if there is a possibility of some issue. Reputation is everything, no one wants the damage or bad press of a lawsuit.

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy

Robert: US Copyright office is adequate but for 25 bucks, WGA is good secondary protection.

David E. Gates

In the UK, the act of writing it gives you copyright. No registration or paying an agency required.

Beth Fox Heisinger

In the US, the act of writing, creating a fixed work (like a spec screenplay) gives you instant, immediate protections under copyright. You don't "go get" a copyright. You already HAVE copyright. Registering your claim is an extra step that is voluntary, not required, not necessary for protection. It's a good idea and considered common practice to establish a date of possession by registering a claim. It's also needed should you ever bring a lawsuit. See the links I shared above. Please. It's all there. :)

Beth Fox Heisinger

And, again, keep in mind registering with WGA is only for 5 years with no real legal standing, unlike registering with the LOC which does. Your WGA registration is valid for a five-year period. Once you submit material you give them permission to destroy that material without notification after the five-year period is up. You must renew your registration (pay the fee again) or your file will be purged from the database. See the FAQs. :) To be honest, just my two cents, registering with the WGA makes little sense.

Leon Clingman

I've been told that one should post a copy of your script to yourself via registered post so that you have proof of the date the script was written in case of a dispute.

John Ellis

I'm with Beth about filing a claim - it is a relatively easy and cost-effective way to generate a date. US Copyright is "recognized" by the majority of countries, so it's not really necessary to register in each country (China is a big exception - that's a whole other conversation).

Realistically, the industry is self-regulating as Beth said. Reputation is everything and it's just better for them to buy a script than steal it. Of course, Submission Releases generally make it very clear that they (the prodco) may be looking at similar works and are not liable.

I've also been told by two different entertainment attorneys that the real-world scenarios of copyright infringement (if and when they actually go to court) ultimately, as Victor painted, depend on who's got the biggest lawyers.

I generally don't worry too much about theft - there are no new stories in the world, and very few truly original ways of telling them. If somebody "steals' one of my stories, I've always got more to tell. And the time and effort I put into creating that stolen story is just going to make me a better writer for my subsequent work. That's my tuppence.

Chris Courtney Martin

My price was quoted at around 50 dollars at checkout last month, so it must vary.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Leon, mailing something to yourself... that's not necessarily a "valid" way of establishing a date of possession because it can easily be faked. Keeping records, emails, dated files, posting work online... all those things create solid evidence. Ironically, the more you share your work the more evidence you create that the work is yours. A large majority of us here on Stage 32, like myself, are working alone, writing spec screenplays that we either pitch or share with others for review, or perhaps we are entering them into screenwriting contests. A simple, single registration with the LOC is enough, just from a common sense point of view. Some contests require an entry be registered. Some companies may only accept materials that have been registered with a third party because your registration protects them too. Now if you are working with a team of writers or for hire, or you sell a script, or you sign a contract, etc, then I would recommend you seek a lawyer to help work out all the legal details. :)

Dan MaxXx

hohum. most stuff ain't worth the paper to print. JK Rowling sent her Harry Potter manuscript all over. Nobody stole her billion dollar idea. Write a good idea and folks will legally buy it or buy you out. It's cheaper.

W Keith Sewell

With the advent of electronic correspondence, email, creation date stamps, all you really have to do is keep a paper trail for all your correspondence with the people/prodcos you've sent your work to... theft of a complete script rarely happens. I use to register with WGA. But I'll spring for copyright on this current project.

Beth Fox Heisinger

W Keith, you already have copyright—for your lifetime plus 70 years. The only thing to "spring for" is the cost of registering a claim of copyright with the LOC. $35 for a simple, single registration (single author, same claimant, one work, not for hire).

W Keith Sewell

you're right Beth!

Beth Fox Heisinger

Dan M, yes, **JK Rowling already had instant, immediate copyright protections as the author and creator of her fixed work, i.e., her manuscript.** Upon publication, contracts were drawn. Look, people in the business know copyright—art, filmmaking, publication, advertising, music, etc, etc, etc. Trademark is something else. This is why paranoia may give an unwanted, negative impression. It's also insulting—think about it, you just assume the person (or entity) is going to steal from you. Get the facts. Perhaps talk to a lawyer. Plus registering a claim is common, no big deal, business as usual. :) After such huge success, now the *Harry Potter* franchise battles copycat works with intellectual property and speech lawsuits. With huge success, it seems, so comes infringement battles. Lol!

Chris Courtney Martin

I'd also like to add that you probably need to be more careful when it comes to collaborators/co-writers than sending your stuff out to companies and other outside professionals. Establish credits early and maybe even draw up a deal memo.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Chris Courtney, see the pdf of registration fees and information I posted above. Single, simple registration (single author, same claimant, one work, not for hire) is $35. Standard Application is $55 (all other filings). There is also a whole list of different prices for group filings, different situations, etc. ;)

Beth Fox Heisinger

The more complicated the filing... I suggest seeking legal guidance. :)

Dan MaxXx

Beth, has there been any recent lawsuits of a script or idea stolen and made into a movie? Movies take like 3 to 5 years to make. it's not if people are stealing and rushing into production. Everybody lawyers up from the get-go. Maybe theft happens on indie prods more? I've done a little music business and that's shadier than movie making; music producers stealing and sampling music beats.

I remember a writer suing The MATRIX and another writer suing FROZEN. Dunno if both cases were resolved.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Yeah, I've heard the music business can be a bit shady too. I don't know of any current film lawsuits, personally. However, as you know, it is incredibly common to have similar ideas in the works from different writers and/or different production companies that have had no contact with one another. Zero. Just honest coincidence. That's why companies will not accept unsolicited work. If, say, a production company already has a vampire film in development and you query them wishing to send them your latest vampire script, they'll flat out reject it. They don't know you. It was not requested. They don't want any evidence that they were exposed to your work, just in case there may be some unknown similarity. So they won't even open or read whatever you sent. ;)

And to actually prove theft in a court of law... a claim of copyright is only a wee small part. You have to prove intent, exposure, and direct word-for-word, note-for-note copying or plagerism—that's where many cases fall apart.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Me, personally, I don't worry about any of this stuff. Not at all. I have much experience with copyright, trademark, etc. I worked in branding, advertising for 15+years... I use to seek usage rights for photographic images, cinematography, art, music, etc, for national campaigns. Dealt with contracts with artists, freelancers, writers. Sat side by side with executives, part of a team. I had to register trademarks, etc. Search databases while designing and creating brand identities. I'm an artist too. And I also have a lawyer .(he's a family friend) LOL! Anyhoo, I'm just trying to share information. With information and knowledge comes peace of mind. ;)

Aray Brown

You should copyright your script anyway, Robert

Beth Fox Heisinger

Oh, I believe the Matrix case was won. The person suing won a large judgment on infringement over authorship, I believe? But that is an individual, specific case. Sure, things can happen. But considering the large scale of thousands and thousands and thousands of scripts exchanging hands, circulating, being entered into contests, etc, etc, etc, plus the large number of films already made, and films soon to be made... theft is quite rare.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Okay, sorry, last time, I promise... Robert, you already have copyright. Instant, immediate protections under copyright. You don't need to "copyright." It's already yours as the creator of a fixed work. As Aray states... it is a good idea to register your claim of copyright. Sorry, I know, I know... I'm beating a dead horse, I'll stop... But it's a common misconception that registering gives you "copyright." It's registering your claim. And, Robert, back to your original question, if you look at the link I provided above you'll see that US copyright protections do carry over to countries that do have relations, treaties and conventions with the states. On the link, there is a list of countries and the nature of their copyright relations with the US. Or... ask a lawyer. LOL! :) Do whatever makes you comfortable. Best to you! I hope this discussion is helpful!

Dan Guardino

The reason you register a screenplay is if you end up in court you'll need admissible evidence to establish the fact that you wrote the screenplay and when. If you sue someone or get sued you'd more than likely lose your case if you don't have it and the party party does. Also most producers aren't going to option or buy your script unless you registered it because they are the ones someone will try to sue.

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