Steve Kaire explains how to protect both your written and verbally pitched material from copyright infringement.
There is no absolute method of protecting your ideas or screenplays. There are however, a number of steps you can take to give you the maximum protection possible. Generally speaking, the more fixed form your idea has, the greater its protection.
Ideas and loglines are the least protectable written material. I recommend that a story idea you pitch and that you have interest in be expanded to a three to five page treatment. Then register that treatment with the U.S. Copyright Office. The longer the material, the more protection you have. Treatments are more protectable than story ideas. Screenplays are more protectable than treatments because they are in a more expanded tangible form.
Writers should also take a journal with them to all pitch meetings they attend. The journal should include the date, name of the person they met with and a list of all the projects they pitched.
You should also get in the habit of sending a thank you note by email after every meeting you have. Mention the names of all the projects you pitched to that company and keep a copy for your records. Save all rejection letters as well. The journal, thank you emails and rejection letters are the beginning of starting a paper trail which can help you keep your material from being stolen.
In the event you believe that your material was stolen, you have to prove two things: SIMILARITY and ACCESS. Similarity means that your script is almost identical to the material you claim was stolen. Keep in mind that there are hundreds of thousands of scripts that have been registered that by coincidence, could be similar in to yours. Access means that you have concrete proof that a company or studio had direct access to your material. You’ll have to hire an attorney to represent you in litigation which will be an expensive proposition for you. And the results are almost always the same. The writer claiming theft loses a costly court battle and is blacklisted for life.
Theft is not as prevalent as most writers perceive, especially in the movie business. It’s a little more prevalent in television since it’s such an imitative and story hungry medium. There’s an old expression in Hollywood, “You’re not going to get screwed by people stealing from you. You’re going to get screwed by people making a deal with you.”