How To Copyright Your Screenplay And Protect Your Film Idea

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

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

I must caution that I am not an entertainment lawyer. Getting sound legal advice is necessary if this is something happening to you or you are worried about. If you have an agent, they might be able to help you.

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, we must discuss the difference between a story and an idea.

You can protect a story you write but not an idea you have.

The fundamental 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 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 and likes the idea but wants a different story, they can hire any writer they want to do that.

Ideas are constantly passed around if you work in a large studio or a writers’ room under the supervision of the showrunner. If you’ve got some good ideas, those will be shared and written by others.

Ideas are cheap, so execution, writing everything yourself, and process documentation is critical to protect your screenplay.

Planning on also directing your film? Read more about the pros and cons of being a writer-director.

Often, 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 precisely, 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 can advise you on how to proceed and whether or not it looks like you have a case.

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

You might like this article on TV screenwriter salary.

WGA Registration

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

Registering your script with the WGA costs $20 (U.S.) for the general public and $10 (U.S.) for WGA members, and they will give you a registration number. They also save a copy of your script that provides dated documentation of your work’s existence.

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

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

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

A final note about WGA registration: Many writers think having a WGA registration number on their front page will impress producers, make them take them 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 will steal your story, chances are they’ll do it regardless of a registration number.

Registering with the WGA is a step you take for yourself, but it is not a guarantee.

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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.

It should also be noted that the WGA quickly mentions 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 gives documentation and a date. 

Registering with the US Copyright Office for complete protection is a good idea.

Other Methods Of Protection

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.

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 to help protect yourself more immediately.

Many 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?

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For some reason, many writers think it is a good idea to keep themselves from being exploited. That is not true.

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

I’ve heard various 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, which tends to hurt your chances of being read.

What Should I Do If My Script Is Stolen?

It’s unfortunately common for people to think their screenplay is stolen, and there are also plenty of times when writers will go to court and lose.

This can cost you money and time.

I would first suggest trying to take a distanced look at the circumstances.

  • Is it likely that this studio stole your screenplay?
  • Was it your story or something that resembled it?
  • How unlikely is it that they had the same idea?

You should consult an entertainment lawyer if you answer these questions and still believe you were ripped off.

I can only offer advice I’ve heard from lawyers, writers, and producers, but true professional advice will be needed if you try to win a court case against a studio.

If someone stole your script – and you can prove it – timing is everything

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 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 for people to 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 must share your work, be open to feedback, and not try to intimidate producers with things like watermarks or “warnings” about WGA registration.

Don’t push for an NDA!

Unfortunately, I’ve heard stories about writers trying to get people to sign NDAs during meetings.

This is an awful idea, and you should never do that. It will only annoy the producers; they most likely won’t sign it, and you’ll never get the deal.

See how to create pitch decks for your film.

Instead, the best thing you can do is keep writing, send out your scripts, and take as many meetings as possible while taking the precautions above.

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 when 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 keep clear documentation of your writing process and register your screenplay when possible.

Have you ever had a screenplay stolen (I hope not!)? And what are the steps you take to protect your work?

Let us know in the comments below and happy writing!


Author

  • Cade Taylor

    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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