Many would-be screenwriters live in mortal fear of someone stealing their incredibly original idea and making millions of dollars off of it while the cheated creator writhes in unrequited agony.
There is a remedy for this particular affliction, but it requires some basic requirements to be met. Anything put on paper can be copyrighted, as long as it is an organized, coherent story. An idea, however, cannot be copyrighted, even if it is summarized in one sentence or one paragraph or one page. It must be a fully fleshed out story that could be clearly recognized if appropriated.
To prove that a screenplay was illegally appropriated, the plaintiff must usually prove access to a key creative participant. No one can steal a movie if they’ve never read it. It is also presumptuous to believe that creative and successful people are sitting around waiting for great ideas to rip off, and that they have such a paucity of imagination themselves.
By all means, protect the investment in a screenplay by registering it, or even formally copyrighting it. Legally, simply placing the copyright symbol on the front title page of the screenplay accomplishes the same goal. So does mailing the screenplay to oneself, and preserving the envelope and postmark to verify date of authorship.
Always remember to copyright subsequent drafts of any screenplay, and to remember to renew the option or copyright on any underlying material. There are many notorious cases of projects that had to be abandoned because the underlying rights, long buried under an avalanche of rewrites, quietly expired without a lawyer noticing. This is why new career opportunities frequently beckon former entertainment attorneys.
Similar but not identical rules apply to copyrighting digital content. Games are copyrighted as computer programs, which involves a whole different set of rules. And the copyrighting of material created for and distributed initially on the Internet is also the focus of swirling legal disagreement. The rules are changing far more quickly in these areas as new forms of copyright are developed and protected via litigation.
Ultimately, all copyright and title documents will have to be assigned to the financier or production entity given copyright ownership of the finished film. If all documents are not clearly marked and up to date, and demonstrate clear and unqualified rights and title to all written and underlying material, the deal will not go through. There are no exceptions in this regard – the copyright and title must be, in industry parlance, “clean.”
The Bottom Line
This is one of the few times it is necessary to hire an attorney early in the development of a property. Many projects have been derailed by the difficulty in presenting clear and documented ownership of all rights and titles. Because of the fear of litigation, no financier will proceed without a lawyer verifying that the title has been properly transmitted. Since lawyers deal best with other lawyers, the producer should make sure his or her lawyer has the proper documents and chain or trail of title, and has certified copies to present as part of any final purchase agreement.
Guaranteeing that this deal-making aspect is in order is far more important than worrying about the over-dramatized impact of story theft in Hollywood. There will always be unscrupulous producers who will take advantage of the naïve and unsuspecting screenwriter, but proper legal documentation of script registration and copyright should go a long ways to easing those concerns.