How To Copyright Your Screenplay And Protect Your Film Idea

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If you’re a writer and have a screenplay you’re passionate about, a very real and understandable fear is that your script or idea may be stolen. Unfortunately, there are plenty of stories about this happening, so it’s easy to want to be protective.

The reality of this situation is that you can’t copyright an idea, but you can copyright a story. So how can you copyright your screenplay? 

The best way to protect your screenplay is to keep a journal of everything involving your script’s production and pitching. I.e., you need to have a clear record of your writing process, the dates you sent it out, and a record of who you send it to. Besides this, you need to register your screenplay with the US Copyright Office (a must!), and preferably also with WGA Registration, and mail a physical copy of your script to yourself.

We’ll discuss the pros and cons of these methods later as well as what to do if your script is stolen.

I say you take off and do it yourself from Orbit–it’s the only way to be sure!

As a new writer, there is always a potential for danger no matter who you are or what you do. Especially if you are working with studios and producers with far more clout, there is a lot that they can get away with.

If there is an idea that is extremely personal to you that you want to guarantee is only made by you, the only way to do that is to make it yourself

I also must caution that I am not an entertainment lawyer. If this is something happening to you or you are worried about, getting sound legal advice is necessary.

With that warning out of the way, below are some tips and tactics you can use to protect yourself as much as possible as you continue writing and sharing your stories. 

Story Versus Idea

How to copyright your script

To start this off, we need to discuss the difference between a story and an idea. As mentioned in the introduction, you can protect a story you write but not an idea you have.

The basic difference is that an idea is what your script is about while the story is what you wrote. For example, I could copyright a script I have about a shark terrorizing a beachside town. I cannot copyright the idea of a movie about a killer shark.

This is the reason there are so many movies that seem like rip offs that are legally safe. 

If a studio reads your script, likes the idea, but wants a different story, they can hire any writer they want to do that.

A lot of time, the lines between story and idea are more blurred. If a writer takes a pass but only changes character names and minor details, you most likely have a claim. 

However, if they change a lot of the script or mirror yours very closely but not exactly, things become a lot less clear.

If this happens, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth pursuing legal action. This is why having an entertainment lawyer is very handy. Though it costs money, a good lawyer will be able to advise you on how to proceed and whether or not it looks like you have a case.

It’s also why it’s important to be able to document everything, which I’ll get back to in a minute.

WGA Registration

Many writers tend to think that registering your script with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is a solid way to protect your script. I would say that they’re half right.

Registering your script with the WGA costs $20 for non-members, and they will give you a registration number. They also save a copy of your script that provides you with dated documentation of your work’s existence.

This is helpful because you will need a clear paper trail in the case of legal action. What’s great about the WGA is that it’s through a recognized organization and makes this documentation very clear and indisputable.

This is by no means though the only tactic you should consider. There are other methods that you can employ at no cost that can serve a similar function that will be discussed later.

It should also be noted that the WGA is quick to mention that it does not take the place of registering with the US Copyright Office

Registering with the WGA doesn’t claim authorship of your writing but simply gives documentation and a date. 

The good idea is to register with the US Copyright Office (more on this next) for complete protection.

A WGA Registration Number doesn’t make your script look more professional

A final note about WGA registration: Many writers think that having a WGA registration number on their front page will impress producers, make them be taken more seriously, or prevent their script from being stolen.

These are all not true. Anyone can register with the WGA, so producers generally don’t care. Making a big deal about registration can turn producers off (just as asking anyone to sign an NDA is a bad idea). 

If a producer is going to steal your story, chances are they’ll do it regardless of a registration number.

At the end of the day, registering with the WGA is a step you take for yourself, but it is not a guarantee.

The US Copyright Office

While the WGA establishes the date and documentation, the US Copyright Office will provide writers with fuller legal protection. Registering costs $35-55 online and $85 for paper applications.

Since the US Copyright Office offers greater legal protection and still provides you with the date and documentation, it is a great step to take. Going this route can take a while, though, and registration can take up to six months.

Additionally, to use the US Copyright Office registration in a court case, the registration has to occur before the infringement

If you publish your script or start sending it out to producers, registering as early as possible with the US Copyright Office, and the WGA for extra protection, is a good idea.

Other Methods Of Protection

Let’s say you cannot register with the WGA and US Copyright Office for any number of reasons. Are there other things you should do? Yes.

There are several best practices that are easy to follow and can help you if your screenplay is stolen before you’re able to protect it in more official ways.

The simplest thing you can do is save email records of who you send your work to and when. Saving the emails themselves, as well as screenshots, is a smart idea always. Even if you register your script, saving your emails can help you prove your case in potential copyright disputes down the line.

Another easy thing you can do is mail a physical copy of your script to yourself and not open it. Having an official postmarked date on the package can be used to make a claim and be evidence of a record.

Especially because registering with the US Copyright Office can take a long time, this is something you could do to try and help protect yourself more immediately.

A lot of writers (myself included) also keep journals and extensive notes. If you don’t, then you should start! Having dated notes and journals, as well as records of who you talked to, when, and the nature of the conversation, are all things that could be important later on.

Should I Watermark My Script?

While we’re on the subject of protecting our work, I’d like to discuss watermarks. For some reason, a lot of writers think that this is a good idea to keep themselves from being taken advantage of. That is not true.

I would advise against watermarking your script if you send it to producers. Many of these people are extremely busy people and if they get a watermarked script from an unknown writer it can turn them off immediately.

I’ve heard a variety of producers and WGA writers complain about receiving watermarked scripts. It does nothing to protect your story, they could still hire a different writer to take a pass at the idea, and it tends to hurt your chances of being read.

What Should I do If My Idea Is Stolen?

It’s unfortunately common for people to think their screenplay is stolen, and there are also plenty of times where writers will go to court and lose. This can cost you money and time, and if you’re a new writer, those are most likely things you don’t have much of.

The first thing I would suggest is trying to take a distanced look at the circumstances. Is it likely that this studio actually stole your screenplay? Was it actually your story or something that resembled it? How unlikely is it that they had the same idea?

If you answer these questions and still believe that you were ripped off, then you should consult an entertainment lawyer. I can only offer advice that I’ve heard from lawyers, writers, and producers, but true professional advice will be needed if you’re going to try and win a court case against a studio.

Another piece of advice from Shane Stanley via Film Courage is to wait until the premiere week to bring this to the studio’s attention.

There’s a good chance that the producers aren’t aware they’re stealing your idea. If they learn this early on in the filmmaking process, they could halt the project altogether, and your movie won’t be made, and you won’t get paid.

All that said, the unfortunate reality is that there are a lot of ideas floating around Hollywood and a lot of movies that are made each year. Even more so, it’s not uncommon that people do have the same idea.

That’s why you can only copyright a story and also why you cannot win a court case without strong evidence and clear documentation.

Should I Share My Script?

At this point, you may be nervous about sharing your script with producers. If you’re a writer trying to break into the field, though, the risk of theft is something you have to accept.

Proving yourself to be a good writer and easy to work with is the most important thing you can do early on. 

To do that, you will have to share your work, be open to feedback, and not try to intimidate producers with things like watermarks or “warnings” about WGA registration.

Unfortunately, I’ve even heard stories about writers trying to get people to sign NDAs during their meetings. This is an awful idea and you should never do that. It will only make the producers annoyed, they most likely won’t sign it, and you’ll never get facetime.

Instead, the best thing you can do is keep on writing, send out your scripts, and take as many meetings as possible while undergoing the aforementioned precautions. You cannot be afraid to share your script as a new writer, because you will never sell anything if you keep it to yourself.

Conclusion

This may sound intimidating and pessimistic, but it’s good to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. There may be a time in your career where your story is stolen, or it feels like it’s stolen, and being well protected could be the difference between credit or no credit.

Knowing that there will never be zero risks, if there’s a story you need to tell yourself or is deeply personal, the only way to guarantee you can do so is to write it and make it on your own. 

As soon as you start relying on studios, producers, and other writers, it is inevitable that the risk of theft will increase, however slight it may be.

All that said, do not be afraid to send out scripts! The chances of someone blindly stealing your script are low. Studios like their money, and a copyright lawsuit could mean a big payout. Just be sure to keep clear documentation of your writing process and register your screenplay when possible.

Have you ever had a screenplay stolen (I hope not!)? What are the steps you take to protect your work? Let us know in the comments below, and happy writing!


Cade Taylor is a filmmaker and writer based out of Los Angeles. Originally from Seattle, he continues to work as the Outreach Coordinator for the Bigfoot Script Challenge, where he helps connect up-and-coming writers with industry professionals. When he’s not working on his own projects, helping out with Bigfoot, or covering desks, Cade loves to share what he knows with other filmmakers and promote great content.

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