Legally Protecting Your Screenplay


For those screenwriters who mail your script to yourself thinking that the postmark date is legal evidence of when your work was created, it doesn’t.

Poor man’s (or woman’s) copyright only proves you know how to use your postal service. Apparently, you can steam open envelopes, change the contents and reseal them without anybody noticing.

U.S COPYRIGHT OFFICE VS WGA

Registering your screenplay with the U.S Copyright Office is the only way to secure legal protection of your work. It only costs around $35 per script and is a prerequisite to file a lawsuit in the case of copyright infringement.

Registering with the WGA is a form of document tracking and their attorneys may help in case of copyright infringement.

The U.S Copyright Office is the only legal evidence of ownership. WGA can provide supporting evidence but not enough to stand alone in court.

U.S Copyright Registration allows screenwriters to claim attorneys’ fees and up to $150000 in statutory damages. No such damages can be claimed with WGA registration only.

U.S Copyright lasts 70 years after the writer’s death and can be lodged electronically. WGA registration offers the same on this point.

PROVING COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT

Firstly, you need to prove ACCESS. That’s why screenwriters should keep notes of all meetings, emails, letters, and records of all materials sent in hard and electronic copy.

Secondly, you need to prove SIMILARITY to your work. This is simply more than a similar idea and in actuality is very difficult.

Similarity must occur in plot, dialogue, characters, themes, settings, mood and sequence of events.

Copyright infringement cannot occur on facts or scenes a faire. The latter refers to scenes common in movies of that type such as shootouts and car chases in action films or blood in horror films.

Similarly, titles and material in the public domain can’t suffer from copyright infringement.

Many industry professionals won’t consider material that hasn’t been legally protected. It it therefore in your best interests to undertake this minor expense.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Michelle says:

    Great post! I posted a similar entry on our office blog here: http://tinyurl.com/bzlegalcopyright

  2. paulrpurimd says:

    I just took a class at UCLA on start up production companies, including legal and business issues.

    One issue that they hammered home repeatedly was that the WGA registration has zero protection legally for new works. Only copyright give legal protection. The entertainment attorney stated that the WGA registration was essentially a scam, and is useful only for multiple authors authoring rewrites on a draft of the script, to show who authored which changes.

    1. This is true. If you want to prove copyright infringement in court, only a US copyright registration is legally as evidence of a literary work. However, WGA registration can be used as additional “evidence” but it carries much less weight. Given the cost differential between the two is minimal, I’d recommend US copyright registration every time.

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