Filmmaker-2-Filmmaker: Tip 3 - Sweat The Business Stuff

Have you seen Night of the Living Dead?  Even if you haven't, you are probably aware of its influence.  The 1968 George Romero horror film is the progenitor of every modern zombie trope; the shambling, the flesh-eating, the brain-lust.  Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, World War Z, the list of imitators and followers extends to infinity.  Everything you know about zombies came from this film.  On top of that, the film is great.  It was terrifying in a way that horror films just weren't until then.  The black and white cinematography is among the most beautiful ever put on film.  And forty-four years later, the film is still teaching us... about copyright?

Before the film was released, it was originally titled Night of the Flesh Eaters, and like all movies of it s day, there was a copyright mark next to the title (that famous little © followed by a date).  But when the title was changed to Night of the Living Dead, the copyright mark was negligently removed.  Based on the copyright law of the time, the absence of the © rendered the film's copyright invalid and the movie immediately entered the public domain.  That meant that anyone could make money off the movie and Romero couldn't do anything about it.  Today, the film is sold on home video by a number of different distributors and is available to view or download free on Hulu and YouTube.

Night isn't the only movie currently in the public domain, but it's rare to see a film on that list that isn't from the 20s, 30s, and 40s.  Thankfully, that law became defunct in 1988 and today artists are no longer required to place the © mark on their work in order to maintain the copyright, although I still recommend doing it (For information on how to protect your copyright, please see my previous post on how and why to register).  Romero has since gone on to make seven million zombie films (only a slight exaggeration), and he owns the copyright to many of them.

So why am I writing about this?  First, because it's an awesome anecdote and an appropriate one for the first day of October.  Second, because it functions as a cautionary tale for every artist out there.  It's tempting to say "I'll take care of the art now and worry about the business stuff later" because as artists, that's where our passion lies.  Our instinct says that if the art is good enough, the business stuff will just fall into place on its own.  Of course, that isn't the reality.  I can attest to that from personal experience...people will try to take advantage of you, either by design or accident.  No one is going to protect your work for you, which is why you need to sweat the business stuff from the moment you begin a project until the moment you deliver it.  It may not be fun to labor over copyright applications or contracts, but that's how you prevent the world from gaining unfettered access to your work (and let's face it, if you're an artist your work isn't just a living, it is an extension of you).  To Romero, the image of zombies in a field was the most terrifying thing he could think of.  To me, it's the idea that because of a little negligence, someone else can make money off your work.

If you're an artist or a filmmaker, you need to condition yourself to take the business side seriously from the beginning.  Don't leave it to the end and certainly don't leave it entirely in the care of another.  Here are some things you should be asking yourself:

  1. Is my original work registered with the U.S. Copyright Office?  If not, it should be.
  2. Regardless of whether I registered my copyright, did I put ©, the date of publication, and my name on the work?  If not, I should.
  3. Do I know what my value is?  If not, I should figure it out and stick by it.
  4. Do I have a contract?  If not, I should have one.  It doesn't need to be long or lawyer-y.  It just has to state the terms.  It doesn't even have to be drafted by a lawyer (although it helps).
  5. If I'm pitching original ideas, did I have people sign non-disclosure agreements?  I should.
  6. Do I own the copyright or does my employer?  This is called work-for-hire and the general rule is that if you are hired to do a creative work for someone, the employer, not you, owns the copyright (this is a bigger issue and I'll tackle it in a future post).
  7. Did I double and triple check all my papers (including papers that I had other people sign and papers that other people had me sign)?

Bottom line: pay attention to every little particular because the devil - or in this case, the zombies - are in the details.

Why Movie Theaters Suck and How To Fix Them

Today I'm going to discuss something near and dear to my heart, so I hope you'll treat what I'm about to say with the respect and gravitas it deserves... modern movie theaters suck.  Last week my wife and I went to see The Master and these are some of the myriad distractions that prevented me from engaging with the film:

  1. The lady sitting behind me kept kicking my seat and futzing with her cell phone.
  2. An old man several seats away kept mumbling to himself throughout the film.
  3. A middle-aged lady kept shushing the old man to keep quiet, and when the shushing didn't work, she outright yelled at him.
  4. That same middle-aged woman left the film after an hour (along with her two companions) never to return.  They made quite a ruckus when leaving.
  5. A woman came in 3/4 of the way through the movie and sat in a seat next to me.  She started munching loudly on some snacks that she had smuggled in from home, and shifted in her seat.  She then left the theater after 10 minutes.
  6. Halfway through the film, five ushers came in and stood at the entrance crunching on popcorn and talking loudly to each other.

For a long time, movies were my religion and the cineplex was my temple.  I worshipped frequently: with friends, family, and often by myself.  While I noticed the decline in the viewing experience over the years, I kept going because I wanted to give my business to films that needed and deserved my support.  Nowadays, I've largely become a theater expat.  Why?  I don't remember the last time I went to see a movie and didn't have the entire experience ruined by people talking and texting, children yammering at age-inappropriate films, and the relentless stickiness of every surface.  Movie theaters have become a wholly unpleasant way to spend a few hours.  When I go now, it's only for the films that I've been hotly anticipating or that demand a 50 foot screen.  For the rest, my home theater will do quite nicely.  Like me, many of you have stopped going with regularity.  The figures certainly bear that out... despite this summer seeing two films that annihilated the box office (The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises), summer movie ticket sales have declined by $100 million since 2002 and movie ticket sales as a whole are at their lowest in decades.

There's a great article over at Fast Company that discusses how design is the key to improving the theater experience and increasing ticket sales.  The crux of their argument is that theater owners are trying to compete with home theaters, Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, and Blu-ray.  That means buying the latest digital projectors, sound systems, and investing in 3D and Imax technologies.  Except, home movie watching isn't competing with theaters for business.  Rather, movie theaters are really in competition with Friday night social venues - such as clubs, restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, etc. - and Fast Company argues that theater owners should be rebuilding the entire movie-going experience around that social engine.  Some of their suggestions are fascinating and could work really well: liquor bars, private viewing boxes for large groups, intimate lounge areas near the actual theater.  One of their most intriguing ideas is to set up a "trailer lounge" where you can gather with your friends in a comfortable seating area and watch the latest trailers and discuss them without fear of being shushed.  [I personally suggest instituting a tiered pricing system and assigned seating...the Arclight Theater in Hollywood does this.]

I applaud this out-of-the-box approach and I sincerely hope that some intrepid theater owner will be willing to embrace these innovative ideas.  For anyone fed up with the state of the modern movie theater, the article is a must read.  But Fast Company only gets at part of the problem.  You see, while the act of "going" to a movie is generally a social activity, the "watching" of the movie is decidedly solitary; after all, you are compelled to sit in silence for two hours. So while theater owners can gussy up the pre- and post-show experiences, the movie-watching experience remains largely unchanged.  And that's precisely the problem: the movie-watching experience has been substantially compromised by strangers bereft of cinema etiquette.  Personally, I don't care if the lobby is nice or that the film is being projected with the latest digital technology.  All the amenities in the world can't make me enjoy a film that I can't hear or see because of inconsiderate theater-goers.   Tim League, owner of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse theater, agrees.

A year ago, League earned some fame by ejecting a customer who texted during a movie despite two warnings to stop (because of theater policy, the customer was not refunded her money).  League blogged about that incident here.  The customer was so incensed that she left a voicemail at the Drafthouse, which League turned into a "Don't Talk or Text PSA."  Here it is in all it's hilarious glory.


League has hit upon exactly the right strategy for making the movie-watching experience better (and thus more appealing to customers): TOSS THE BUMS OUT!   It is so simple, so affordable, and so effective that I can't believe no one has implemented it in any meaningful way.  In the golden age of cinema, theaters employed uniformed ushers to patrol the theater and remove the riff-raff.  Most theaters don't do that anymore and I can't figure out why.  After all, there's virtually no legal downside.  Businesses can't discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability, age, etc., but they can generally pick and choose with whom they wish to do business.  Furthermore, businesses are allowed to expel customers from their property for just about any reason.  When you go to a movie, you are being invited onto private property.  Such an invitation is revocable anytime by the business owner because your presence on the property is a privilege, not a right... even if you paid to be there.

Theater chains must know that if they were sued by expelled theater goers they would almost certainly be judgment proof.  So if there's no fear of a lawsuit, why don't they just kick out unruly patrons?  Are they afraid of bad press?  Are they afraid of physical confrontations?  In my opinion, it's most likely inertia combined with a deep-seated apathy; once they have your money, they don't care if you have a pleasant experience.  In fact, some chains, namely Regal and Imax, are doubling down on the bad experience angle by creating "texting friendly theaters"!!  League has spoken out about that here.  He writes that

"By introducing screenings where people are free to text during the movie, you will be creating unhappy customers at every single session.  It really boils down to the undeniable fact that texting in a movie theater is rude, selfish, and adversely affects everyone within view of your glowing device.  The only answer to this debate is taking a hard line.  Texting and talking can not be allowed in movie theaters.  Our spaces are sacred spaces for movie fans... To me, the leniency towards talking and texting is a greater threat to our industry."

I agree with that sentiment and I think most of you agree with it too.  There's a reason why theater ticket sales are down, and I wager it's mostly because going to the movies has become intolerable.  If the theaters don't care about my experience, then why should I pay for that experience?  In response to the rude texter who he ejected, Tim League wrote,  "you may be free to text in all the other theaters... but here at our 'little crappy ass theater,' you are not.  Why you may ask?  Well, we actually do give a f*$k."  I think that more amenities, features, and radical design makeovers will definitely help to increase ticket sales, but undoubtedly the future of the movie theater industry will rest on whether theater owners start giving an old-fashioned f*$k.

You Have The Right To Be Paid: Death of the Unpaid Internship

Over the life of this blog I will probably spend a lot of time talking about lawsuits that affect the arts and entertainment world.  You may find some of them boring and some of them engaging.  But even if you decide that talking about pending legal cases isn't fun or interesting, I implore you to pay attention to these two, since they deal with a subject we can all get behind: getting paid for your work.

Last year, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, two interns who worked on the film Black Swan, sued the film's distributor Fox Searchlight, claiming that the company's unpaid internship program violated minimum wage and overtime laws.  They argue that they went unpaid, even though they were required to fill out I-9 forms, sign confidentiality agreements and were deemed "employees" covered under workers' compensation laws.  They're now trying to have the case turned into class action.  You can read about the case here and here.  Fox has since amended its program to begin paying interns $8.00 per hour.

Likewise, earlier this year, Diana Wang, a former intern of Harper's Bazaar Magazine filed a suit against the publisher, Hearst Inc., for failing to pay her despite working a full-time schedule (upwards of 55 hours per week).  That case has recently been granted class action status.  Both cases hope to be the death knell for the unpaid internship.

According to Glatt, he took the internship at Fox because he was trying to break into the film business and was told by numerous people that taking an unpaid internship was a necessary stepping stone to eventual paid work.  In fact, due to the Great Recession and persistent jobless claims, unpaid adult internships have been on the rise nationally and have spilled over into a number of industries, not just the glamorous ones like publishing and entertainment.  Glatt argues that unpaid internships are detrimental because "they disrupt the labor market for entry-level workers by forcing people at the beginning of their careers to work for no pay and suppressing wages for people who have been on the job for several years."

I've personally seen the effects Glatt is talking about and he's totally right: entry-level workers get paid in "experience" and mid-level worker pay rates drop to entry-level rates.  When I first started producing television, a producer's day rate was somewhere between $250-350 per day.  As unpaid internships proliferated, producer rates fell to the average day rate of a production assistant - $100-200 per day (for those not in the know, a production assistant is the lowest rung on the entertainment ladder.  The only thing lower than a production assistant is... you guessed it, an unpaid intern).  As a result, production assistant rates dropped and those positions often became filled with interns willing to do the job for free.

This is why I believe the outcome of these cases will be really important:  first, if Glatt, Footman, and Wang win, those victories may stabilize the markets for new and experienced workers alike by preventing drops in wages; second, companies will be forced to scale down their unpaid internship programs or take greater care to make sure they conform to the law (more on this in a bit); lastly, they will validate an area of law that is well established, but rarely gets enforced because so few people are willing to stand up against the companies that employ armies of unpaid interns.  Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA), internships are considered regular employment unless they meet these six criteria outlined by the Department of Labor:

  1. The internship... is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer... derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern...
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If the internship meets all six criteria, then the employer is not responsible to pay the intern as a regular employee.  Of course, Glatt, Footman, and Wang are arguing that the criteria were not met and they should have been paid as regular employees. [Side note: as with many of the federal websites, the Department of Labor is a very useful resource for people who want to know if their employer is violating their rights].

I think there is some legitimacy to unpaid internships if there is an actual educational component; mostly as a real-world training tableau for students.  During my first year in Los Angeles, I took 7 unpaid internships.  Some of them were beneficial and I learned a lot.  I was taught how to edit, direct, and produce (sometimes just by watching, but sometimes I was lucky enough to have a mentor who taught me).  More often than not, however, the internships were a flimsy pretext for free labor.  Often, I was relegated to picking up coffee and taking lunch orders.  I frequently used my car to make deliveries and was compensated neither for the miles I drove nor the gasoline I expended.  I once spent an entire month at a Venice-based editing studio and not a single person there learned my name (they kept calling me Marcus for some reason).  I even worked unpaid on a decent-sized film for 96 straight hours without a break.  I did all this in the hopes of making a name and eventually getting paid work.  And while paying gigs did eventually come, there's no reason I had to accept unpaid work to get there.

In the coming months, I'll be working on a project called "The Artist's Bill of Rights," a resource for artists to learn their rights. I don't mind spoiling the First Amendment which is, in my opinion, the most important:


After all, as an artist, your work is your livelihood, and being paid for your work is a statement about your worth to yourself and to the project.  Directors, producers, and publishers don't work for free; neither should you.  But if the circumstances are right and you are willing to give away your work, you should know exactly what you're getting in return.  Most young artists will take an unpaid internship at one point in their careers and if they do, I hope the information I posted above will help them make smart decisions about what they can expect out of the internship.  And hopefully, if these cases find in favor of the plaintiffs, the days of interns fetching coffee and dry-cleaning without pay are numbered.

When The Movies Get It Right: A Courtroom Scene With True Grit

If you're writing a screenplay that features a pivotal courtroom scene and you want to figure out how to write it, you could buy "Basic Trial Advocacy," a trial practice manual by Peter Murray.  I used this book during my second year of law school and it's really fantastic.  Well explained and easy to understand.  Or you can just watch True Grit (The Coen Brothers 2010 remake).  It has one of the most accurate portrayals of a legal proceeding I have ever seen in a Hollywood production.

About 15 minutes into the film, we meet protagonist, Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges as a violent, cocksure, slurring drunkard) giving testimony at the trial of Odus Wharton.  The scene is played for humor and as an introduction to Cogburn's predilection for killing his suspects.  The dialogue is classic Coen Brothers: pithy, wry, and rhythmic.  It's also delivered by magnificent actors like Bridges who have the ear to turn that dialogue from a garbled mess into something almost musical.

But beyond the masterful writing and acting, the scene plays because the Coens clearly did research on what a trial actually feels like.  I don't know whether they picked up a trial advocacy book like the one I mentioned above, whether they sat in on real trials, or hired a lawyer to write that scene, but whatever they did worked.  So often I get the impression that Hollywood writers don't do the research, or would rather indulge their dramatic proclivities instead of going for something accurate.  If you've been reading this blog, then you know I am a firm believer that drama and realism need not be mutually exclusive.  

Let's look at what makes this scene authentic.  [This is going to be a bit long-winded, so bear with me.  Take a look at my Dark Knight Rises post if you're looking for something short.  I praised that film as well for its legal veracity.]  As the prosecutor, Mr. Barlow, conducts his direct-examination on Cogburn, the defense attorney Mr. Goudy, played with a great deal of huff by actor Joe Stevens, objects to the questions (I've highlighted the objections in red).

Mr. Barlow

What did you do then?


Me and Marshal Potter went out to the smokehouse and that rock had been moved and that jar was gone.

Mr. Goudy

Objection. Speculative.



Mr. Barlow

You found a flat gray rock at the corner of the smokehouse with a hollowed-out space under it?

Mr. Goudy

If the prosecutor is going to give evidence I suggest that he be sworn.

Mr. Barlow

Marshal Cogburn, what did you find, if anything, at the corner of the smokehouse?

Then later on:

Mr. Barlow

Did you find the jar with the hundred and twenty dollars in it?

Mr. Goudy




Mr. Barlow

What happened then?


I found the jar with a hundred and twenty dollars in it.

Mr. Barlow

And what happened to Marshal Potter?


Died. Leaves a wife and six babies.

Mr. Goudy



Strike the comment.

It's difficult to tell just from reading the passage, but the interactions between Mr. Goudy and Mr. Barlow weren't underscored by tension, animosity, or high drama.  There  was no attempt to cast Mr. Barlow as the good guy and Mr. Goudy as the villain.  The two men continued their questioning as if these things just happen.  And you know what?  They do.  All the time.  I've seen my fair share of trials; good lawyers often ask speculative or leading questions, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose.  The other side objects because they're supposed to.  In real life, there's no seething anger or hatred between them.  Yes, both sides fight hard (sometimes viciously) for their clients, but there's generally a sense of deference between attorneys.  That deference played out in this scene.  What no one tells you is that real trials are very structured.  Both sides generally know what the other side is going to ask, so they plan accordingly, which is why those dramatic "gotcha" moments happen so rarely.  The Coens understood that in a way that few people who haven't sat through a real trial would.

Here's another reason why this scene works: the Coens got the language and legal theory right.  Look at this interaction once Mr. Goudy began to cross-examine Cogburn.

Mr. Goudy

In your four years as U.S. marshal, Mr. Cogburn, how many men have you shot?

Mr. Barlow


Mr. Goudy

There is more to this shooting than meets the eye, Judge Parker. I will establish the bias of this witness.


Objection is overruled.

Mr. Goudy

How many, Mr. Cogburn?


I never shot nobody I didn't have to.

Mr. Goudy

That was not the question. How many?


. . . Shot or killed?

Mr. Goudy

Let us restrict it to "killed" so that we may have a manageable figure.


Around twelve or fifteen. Stopping men in flight, defending myself, et cetera.

Mr. Goudy

Around twelve or fifteen. So many that you cannot keep a precise count. Remember, you are under oath. I have examined the records and can supply the accurate figure.


I believe them two Whartons make twenty-three.

Mr. Goudy

Twenty-three dead men in four years.


It is a dangerous business.

Mr. Goudy

How many members of this one family, the Wharton family, have you killed?


Immediate, or--

Mr. Barlow

Your honor, perhaps counsel should be advised that the marshal is not the defendant in this action.

Mr. Goudy

The history is relevant your honor. Goes to Cogburn's methods and animosities.

Notice the different way each attorney questioned Cogburn.  In the first excerpts, Mr. Barlow questioned Cogburn, his own witness.  Since Cogburn was the prosecutor's witness, Mr. Barlow was limited to asking "then what happened" style open-ended questions.  This gives the witness control over the story and prevents the lawyer from feeding answers to a favorable witness.  That's why every time Mr. Barlow tried to focus Cogburn's testimony by asking closed questions, he got smacked by Mr. Goudy and the judge.  So far so good.

Then a shift occurred.  When Mr. Barlow finished his line of questioning, the defense attorney, Mr. Goudy, asked Cogburn a series of leading, sometimes attacking questions on cross-examination (a leading question is one that has the answer already in it). This is because Cogburn was an adverse witness to Mr. Goudy's client and Mr. Goudy was trying to discredit Cogburn by poking holes in his story.  Attorney's are allowed to "lead" adverse witnesses and even make them look like liars.  During his questioning, Mr. Goudy got quite aggressive with Cogburn, but it wasn't played for high drama.  Rather it was treated as an attorney trying to get answers out of an uncooperative witness.  The Coens also got this dynamic right.

Let's talk about the legal theory. Mr. Goudy pushed Cogburn to admit how many men he's killed.  His line of questioning alerted Mr. Barlow who stood up to ask the judge to stop it. Why?  Because Mr. Goudy was about to do a big no-no in trial practice: he was about to attack Cogburn's character.  Under Rule of Evidence 404 in most states, you cannot admit evidence of a person's character for the sole purpose of showing that he is the kind of person who normally does this kind of thing.  From the passage, you can see that Mr. Goudy's questions were designed to show that Cogburn is a man of poor character because he shoots first - therefore he is an unreliable witness.  But the judge allowed it because under Rule 404, you CAN admit evidence of a person's character to show motive, intent, bias, animosity, modus operandi, etc.  Here, Mr. Goudy wished to show that Cogburn had a bias against the Wharton family as is evidenced by his history of gunning down the Whartons. And as Mr. Goudy continued his questioning, we discovered that Cogburn had indeed shot two members of the Wharton before the current altercation, bringing the total to four dead Whartons killed by one man.  The script followed the rules of evidence to a T.

The scene lasted a total of about 7-8 minutes, but in it, we got a sense of the deference between competing sides, the reality of the atmosphere in a real courtroom (and the lack of heightened drama), the correct use of evidentiary rules, and proper trial practice technique. I have to admit bias here.  I am an unabashed admirer of the Coen Brothers and especially their 2010 remake of the John Wayne classic.  I even love the Coen films that I hate.  No one makes movies like these guys.  But bias notwithstanding, I think that you can learn nearly everything you'd need to know about proper trial advocacy from this scene.

Also, yes, I watched the Blu-ray three times so I could transcribe this scene for you.

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.