Copyright – Do You Need Protection?


As prolific screenwriters, we need to protect our original screenplays from theft, plagiarism, debasement, derivation, reproduction, exploitation, distribution, public performance or any unauthorized modification.

Copyright law is intended to maintain the ownership and integrity of your original screenwriting, unless permission is granted otherwise.

Copyright is granted to authors globally as a means of legal protection of their work. In the USA, copyright protects the artistic expression of literary works. In general, titles, characters/names (although superheroes and cartoon characters are protected under trademark law), concepts or ideas are not protected under copyright law.

This mainly occurs to prevent ungrounded claims of plagiarism in the case of similar storylines being written and to encourage freedom of speech.

Whenever a screenplay, treatment, synopsis or other form of literary work is copyrighted, it is best to execute the idea as fully as possible in case of a dispute. For instance, copyrighting a story about a long distance runner who wins the Olympics is not possible.

Copyright is granted automatically to all screenwriters upon completion of their work. How privileged do you feel? The only way to legally document your copyright in the USA, is by registering your script with the Library Of Congress US Copyright Office.

Registration with the WGA or sending a copy of the script to yourself only creates a paper trail, but is not considered hard enough evidence in court if you want to sue for copyright breach or infringement.

To aid the legal process, copyright can only exist if the work is in a fixed tangible form. This includes a script scribbled on the back of a napkin, voice recordings on your iPod, but not personal thoughts, dreams or premonitions.

The law states that a copy is a form that can be ‘visually perceptible’ either by itself or with aids such as films, music or electronic devices.

There is no legal requirement to give express notice of copyright using the © symbol, although it does look impressive on your title page. The typical format of copyright notice is the © symbol, followed by the year of creation, followed by the creator’s name.

In the case of joint authorship, the copyright is assigned equally between all parties.

Copyright duration varies between countries, but is generally between 50 and 100 years, before it enters the public domain. In the USA, the period is 70 years after the death of the author, or in the case of anonymous or pseudonymous work, 95 years after it was first published. Most countries have reciprocal agreements, so copyright exists universally. These countries are defined as signatories to the Berne Convention for the Protection Of Literary Works or the Universal Copyright Convention.

A screenwriter can only copyright original writing. In the case of screenwriter for hire, the copyright exists with the rights holder, usually the production company.

Unpublished and unproduced scripts can be copyrighted. Similarly, the copyright for rewrites, translations, adaptations or other forms forms of derivation lies with the original copyright holder. Writers can even copyright a group of works (such as a trilogy or series) if they are submitted together in a single application.

Since copyright protects your personal literary property, it can be transferred by contract. Producers call this ‘obtaining the rights’. It must be done before a novel, for instance, can be made into a film.

A “fair use” policy applies, so a script can be discussed in a class for educational purposes. As is the case with other published works, you can reproduce up to 10% of the work for such “fair use” purposes. This protects against frivolous claims of copyright infringement. If you want to litigate for infringement, you must prove another party’s similarity and access to your work. Similarity without access suggests synchronicity which is not against the law.

Copyright is recorded as soon as your literary work arrives at the relevant Copyright jurisdiction, either electronically, or in had copy, provided all documentation is in order. You will always be notified when your materials have arrived and the exact date.

You do not normally need to register every draft, unless  it has been substantially reworked and virtually unrecognizable from the original script. However, copyright registration offers ten years of protection and will need to be renewed after that time.

In all probability, script theft is a rarity in the film business. Since it is typically one of the lowest priced items in a film making checklist, there is little incentive to steal. Furthermore, studios don’t want the hassle of a lawsuit or the bad press.

So there you have it folks. A short legal lesson before you get back to your screenwriting.

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