Filmmaker-2-Filmmaker: Tip 2 - Copyrighting Your Writing

[Author's Note: this post contains legal information but is not intended as legal advice. All the legal information contained in this blog post is public domain and available to everyone.]

Between high school and law school, I wrote 21 screenplays - 5 features, and 16 shorts.  Like many creative types, I only had a vague idea of what copyright was and had no concept of how to use copyright to protect that work.  As a result, I was too scared to show my writing to anyone for fear of theft.  Those scripts sat collecting dust for a very long time.

So when I get a question like this - "If I want to copyright a movie script in the U.S., how do I do it? And do I have to be a citizen?" - I feel compelled to pass on the knowledge and experience that I have been blessed with since that time.  This particular question came from my cousin, a man who is as much a movie buff as I am, and with whom I've spent countless hours geeking out over a wide variety of films.  And while the citizenship question is not one that most of you will face, it does tap into the fundamentals of U.S. Copyright Law.  So let's get to it!

U.S. Copyright Law is really an artist’s dream because there are so many devices built into it that help artists protect their work.  Here are some good ones:

  1. The moment you create a work of artistic expression, such as a screenplay, and that work is fixed in a tangible form (i.e. you wrote it down), that work is copyrighted.  No registration of any kind is required.  You don't need official documentation to copyright something and, believe it or not, you don't even need to put that little © on the work (although it’s still advisable… the more information there is to demonstrate authorship and date of creation, the better you can protect yourself).  Basically, the moment you put pen to paper, you are the owner of that intellectual property (minus some exceptions that I won't go into here).
  2. Just about everything creative qualifies for copyright protection (you can’t, however, copyright ideas or concepts). For those interested in the specifics, Section 102 of the Copyright Law outlines what is covered.  The list is not exhaustive and is left wide open for future types of artistic expression.
  3. If you create a work, then you, your children, your grandchildren, and maybe even your great-grandchildren can benefit financially from it.  Most copyrights last for the life of the author plus 70 years.
  4. If someone steals your work, you can sue for quite a bit of money.  Damages range from $750.00, to $150,000 for each infringed work!
  5. And yes, even if you’re not a U.S. citizen, you can still benefit from U.S. Copyright Law protections.  According to the U.S. Copyright Office, Any work that is protected by U.S. copyright law can be registered. This includes many works of foreign origin. All works that are unpublished, regardless of the nationality of the author, are protected in the United States.”

But even with all these protections, U.S. Copyright Law can’t prevent someone from stealing your hard work.  And if you end up in a situation where someone is claiming your writing as their own, you need to show that your work predates theirs.  For that, you need documented proof.  So although your artistic expression is copyrighted from the moment it’s created, registering it with the Copyright Office or the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is the best way to create that proof and take advantage of all those great benefits I just outlined.

True story: in 2003, I went to pitch several TV shows to development execs at a Hollywood production company that I had freelanced for.  The ideas were fairly detailed, but I had not written them down.  The execs politely informed me that the ideas weren't right for them and sent me on my way.  A few months later, I went back to interview for another low paid freelance position at that company, only to discover that I was interviewing for a job on a new show that bore a suspicious resemblance to one I had pitched them months before.  I put up a fight and, as you might expect, wasn’t hired by them again.  I felt angry and helpless, mostly because I didn’t have any proof that I had come up with the ideas myself.

If I had typed up my ideas into “treatments” and registered those treatments with the Copyright Office and the WGA, I could have sued for theft of my copyright because the registrations would have created a public record showing that my idea had existed before their show.

There are three main ways to register, they're all relatively painless, and you can do as many or as few as you want:

  1. Register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.  You can register online at the Copyright Office website. There’s a $35 filing fee (per work) and the processing time is roughly between 2-3 months.
  2. Register your work with the Writers Guild of America.  You can register online at the WGA East or WGA West.  The filing fees for non-members are $25 per work for WGA East and $20 per work for WGA West.  You can also register with either by mail if you prefer.  I’ve registered works with both the Copyright Office and the WGA and the protections are comparable.  The whole point is to make sure that there’s an official record of your work somewhere in case you need to prove it.
  3. The last option is known as the “poor man’s copyright.”  If you wish to have evidence that your work came first, but cannot pay the filing fees (remember, at the Copyright Office or the WGA, you must pay the fee FOR EACH WORK registered), you can mail yourself a copy of the work.  The envelope will be stamped with a date and that date will be the proof of origin.  Of course, the envelope must remain sealed once you receive it.  To open it would be to eradicate the purpose of sending it yourself (if the envelope remains sealed, no one can tamper with the contents). In my experience, the “poor man’s copyright” isn’t nearly as effective as the first two, mostly because people forget that they’re not supposed to open the envelope.  One time, I mailed myself my own screenplay (it cost $10 to mail).  A week later, I received it in the mail.  I was so excited to get a package that I neglected to look at the sender's address (MINE!) and tore open the envelope to find my own script.  Whoops!  Suffice to say, that was not $10 well spent.

Speaking from personal experience, registering my writing gave me the peace of mind I needed to feel comfortable showing it to others without fear of it being stolen.  My feeling is, if I can’t prove that I own the copyright, I can’t prove theft and thus, can’t win in a lawsuit.

As an aside: the Copyright Office is a great resource for artists and writers looking for information on how the law works.  It also contains the complete copyright law for you to peruse.