The concept of story thieving has dogged screenwriters forever. Whether it be outright plagiarism or “borrowing” certain character types or storylines, the issue has largely been overplayed.
The reality is that there are a limited number of stories (36 dramatic situations). Everyone influences and is influenced by everybody else, whether consciously or not.
Look up synchronicity and serendipity in your dictionary. The chances of other people having the same idea at the same time as you are extraordinarily high. However, the execution will most likely be different.
An idea is not protected by copyright. Only the execution of an idea in a tangible fixed form.
The only surefire way to stop your film idea from being stolen is to never share it with anyone.
In the USA, the only way to protect yourself is to register your copyright. The first step is to have your film idea in a tangible form such as an audio-visual medium or a screenplay. Then register your film or TV script with the U.S Copyright Office. This establishes a legal time and place of ownership of a literary work.
WGA registration only proves a tangible version of a script exists at a given point in time. The WGA will assist you if they believe a breach of copyright has occurred, but in itself, WGA registration is insufficient evidence in court.
Let’s take a look at some considerations to decide if theft has occurred:
This is also called PLAGIARISM. it occurs when a substantial portion of your screenplay has been stolen without your knowledge, permission or acknowledgment. This is extremely rare. Back in the day, a shoddy producer might change the title of your script and claim ownership. A film script typically accounts for 3-5% of the total production budget, so it doesn’t make sense for a film producer to steal a screenplay and risk their reputation.
Screenwriters should also note that familiar genre tropes are not copyrightable. For instance a car chase in an action movies or the bridal waltz in a romantic comedy movie are not protected by copyright.
If you decide to file a lawsuit because someone has the used the exact same church wedding scene, even down to the dialogue:
“Do you [party 1] take [party 2] to be your lawfully wedded spouse?”
— yadayadayada —
“I do” — yadayadayada.
DON’T DO IT!
A breach of copyright refers to a conscious theft of elements of your screenplay. These include likeness of character names and backstories, plots, themes, dialogue and setting. Although a copyright breach can be unintentional, it usually is a pre-meditated act.
So if you write a movie about a fictitious character called Ronald J. Trump, which “borrows” heavily from his book The Art Of The Deal, be prepared for a lawsuit.
Writing about public events such as the Olympics are not covered by copyright law. Huge similarities between movies are expected to exist since the format of the Olympic Games is relatively constant.
An infringement is a lesser crime and is often solved by a cease and desist letter. These are often unintentional and classed as misdemeanors.
In order to legally prove copyright infringement, you need to prove similarity and access to the source material.
Many screenwriters complain about these ominous forms producers ask them to sign before reading a script. A purist attorney will advise not to sign it because you are diminishing your rights. However, you will never sell a movie script if nobody reads it.
All reputable production companies have them to protect themselves from frivolous claims of copyright infringement. I know of several literary management companies who have been sued (unsuccessfully) by disgruntled screenwriters. It is possible that companies have similar concepts in development, despite your insistence that your screenplay is so original, nobody has ever seen anything like it.
However, if a producer blatantly steals your work, they can’t hide behind a release form and can still be sued.
Like everything in the legal world, there must be a balance between freedom of expression and legal protection of your intellectual property. Furthermore, every case is treated individually, so these broad statements are generalizations rather than specific advice.
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