From his book: WRITE AND SELL THE HOT SCRIPT

I am not a lawyer. Nothing in this chapter should be construed as legal advice and is presented for educational purposes only. Please see a lawyer.

Copyright law around the world is based on a simple premise- surrounding the planet earth there is a cloud of spirituality, of ideas. Any two people at the same time can pull down the same idea. And ideas are free.

What is copyrightable is the expression of the idea, be it as a poem, sculpture, libretto, novel or script. Sometimes, the difference between what is an expression of an idea and what is an idea can become complicated. Lawyers love the billings they make for cases such as this.

Basically, two screenwriters can come up with the same storyline for a movie. They write two very different screenplays, but the storyline idea (which cannot be copyright protected) cannot be disputed.
I have taught enough screenwriters in enough countries to know that if you are reading this, you are getting pretty paranoid by now.  Please force yourself to finish reading this chapter, so you can develop a positive mental attitude towards copyright.

Many writers and artists labour under the misconception that they must fill out an official form, and write the letter ‘©’ in order to assert their claim for ownership of the copyright. In fact, all countries recognize that the artist owns copyright from the moment it is created.

The difficulty arises in proving that ownership is a court of law.

Protecting Your Screenplay

1. Protecting the idea

You cannot protect an idea. This is the whole point of copyright law.  Your first task after coming up with a great idea for a movie is to write as detailed an account of your idea as possible. Generally, a page or two is not sufficient. A judge may be unable to distinguish your ideas from your competitors. Three pages are better, but I recommend ten. After all, you have an idea for a movie that will end up being ninety to a hundred- and-twenty pages long. Surely you can outline the key points in ten pages.

2. Ownership

You own the copyright of your script or treatment the moment it is created. Suppose you are in your ivory tower, typing your hundred-page screenplay. You are on a complete roll, when suddenly, near the bottom of page ninety-nine you hear the two most dreaded words a screenwriter will ever hear bouncing up the walls of your ivory tower – ‘Honey! Dinner!’ You race down for dinner, storm through your food, and race back to your typewriter only to discover that an erstwhile copyright thief has taken the ninety-nine page manuscript from you, and typed a new page hundred and is now claiming ownership of the script. The question of ownership would be defeated in court in this example.  You created the screenplay (minus page hundred) and you own the copyright. The only way that you lose the copyright is by assigning the title of the screenplay to someone else, presumably for a wad of cash. The difficulty is in proving that you own the copyright.

3. Creating the birth certificate

Screenwriters can apply to have their script registered upon completion, in a similar way that parents apply for a birth certificate for their newborns. It is called Certificate of Registration, and is available from the Writers Guild of America at www.wga.org

At the time of writing, the fee is a modest $20.00. Send a copy of the final version of the screenplay. For you money, you will receive a letter with the date your script was received long with a serial number (to assist in file retrieval). Keep this number confidential.

Other writers register their scripts with the United States Copyright Office. You can check the current fees from www.loc.gov/copyright or call (202) 707 3000.

Other art organizations in the UK, the trade union BECTU and also Raindance provide the service free to its members.

Now you can promote and market you script to you hearts content knowing that you are able to prove the date of creation.

4. Proving ownership

However, there is an additional piece of administrative detail, which you must attend to in order to back up the birth certificate. Should you ever go to court in a copyright dispute with another writer, or with a producer who you suspect of using your script with permission, you need to prove that you are the one who registered the screenplay. In property transaction, this is called chain of title, where your solicitor will looks at the deeds of the house you are buying and trace all the previous owners back in time to make sure that the title has no unpaid mortgages, liens for city taxes and so on. Screenplays are classed as intellectual property, and the laws governing the trading of intellectual property are similar to those governing real estate transaction.

Screenwriters also need to prove chain of title, although it is less formal than in property dealing. You have to keep a formal record of everyone you speak to about your screenplay.

For more details on how to manage and maintain Chain of Title

5. Ten thousand monkeys

American scientists proved the theory of ‘isn’t it amazing about the common currency of ideas in circulation; with an experiment in the South Pacific. There they found six islands, on which lived a unique species of monkey, totalling ten thousand. One fifth of the island grew sweet potatoes; a very good food for monkeys – but none of the monkeys ate sweet potatoes. Approximately six hundred monkeys lived on the sixth island- the one without sweet potatoes. The scientists introduced sweet potatoes, trained few monkeys to dig up the potatoes, take them to the ocean and wash them, and then eat them. A very strange thing happened when approximately a hundred of the six hundred monkeys were digging up the sweet potatoes, taking them to the ocean and washing then and eating them. Suddenly, the monkeys on the other islands started to dig up sweet potatoes, take them to the ocean to wash them and eat them.

Isn’t it amazing about the common currency of ideas in circulation?

When I moved to London from Toronto in 1986, I was used to being a Lone Ranger. In Toronto, if I had an idea for literally anything, I would be isolated by all my acquaintances (I didn’t really have ‘friends’) because they thought me, with my crazy ideas, quite weird. But when I moved to London, not fully appreciating the difference in size, and the broad depth of this cosmopolitan and multi-cultural city, I suddenly felt at one with a huge number of unseen friends. And whenever I have an idea I would read about it in the newspaper the very next day – pretty scary for a writer.

Remember that whatever you idea for a movie is, I can guarantee you that at least a dozen other people in the world right now have exactly the same idea. The only difference is that you are reading this book and attempting to better way to get it out onto paper. Remember that all ideas are basically sound. What makes an ordinary idea exciting is the way you bend, reshape and state the idea. The expression of the idea is yours, and yours alone. The bolder and fresher you can be, the more valuable your idea will be in the market place.

6. Misfortune

What if you have a great idea for a movie, register it for copyright, and voilà – someone else is making the movie? What would you do? Sue? Commit suicide? Give up writing?

Misfortune is a weird and dangerous thing. Consider this true story of a writing friend of mine in London. She came up with a concept for a television show based on the true-life experiences of people living alone, but sharing accommodation. In order to secure stories, she placed ads in London’s famous Time Out magazine advertising for people to write in with their stories. She prepared a questionnaire for potential participants, which she returned to each person who responded to the ad. This process took place over an extensive period of time. Just as she was approaching her goal of getting the right mix of people for her series of shows, she was summoned to New York on an urgent family matter. While there she picked up a Village Voice, where to her amazement saw an ad that was worded identically to hers. She responded and received a questionnaire exactly like the one she had prepared in London, some eighteen months earlier. Back in London, she conferred with an entertainment attorney, another good friend of mine. He told her that she had a cases for copyright infringement, which he was willing to pursue for nothing, as a favour. Hard costs would be $5,000 to $10,000. As she didn’t happen to have that much cash lying around for a speculative enterprise as this, he advised her to pass. Even if she won her case she would still have to prove that she had suffered financial damages. As it was difficult to see how a classified ad in New York could possibly infringe on a television show destined for the United Kingdom, she decided to let go. A few months later, the trades announced the production start of a movie I cannot name for legal reasons, but roughly the story of single Caucasian females.

My friend had a great attitude to this misfortune. She shrugged her shoulders and simply said that it proved that her ideas were commercially viable, and she moved on.

7. Waiver letters and submission release

Sometimes when you submit a script to a production company, they will send your script back with a letter that they want you to sign. The letter basically states that they want you to cast aside you legal right to sue then for copyright infringement if they ever make a film resembling in any way your screenplay.

My advice is simple. If you don’t feel comfortable with the letter don’t sign it. The film company will not read your script. Go find someone else. Of course, I believe that astute writers understand that these waivers are designed by film companies, not to make it easier to plunder screenplays, but to defend then from dishonest screenwriters. Either way you look at it, don’t do anything until you feel comfortable.

How to draft a submission release:

8. Non-disclosure agreements

Pitching ideas blind to a film company can be considered a form of an open invitation to thieve your ideas. A non-discloure agreement is a binding contract where each party agrees not to discuss their ideas with anyone else unless certain pre-agreed conditions are met.

Get tooled up on non-disclosure agreements here

9. Acquiring right to a true life story

Writers will often become aware if a true-life story based on a newspaper account or television news piece. In order to acquire the screenplay rights to a person’s true-life story, you need to approach the individual directly and secure their written permission to base a screenplay on their life.

Probably the easiest way to contact this person is through the journalist who originally created the story. Through this contact, approach the individual directly, and see if you can persuade them to allow you to write the story of their life.

There are certain laws governing the stories of criminals. Most countries will not allow a criminal to profit from any story about their crime, through the American ‘Son of Sam’ laws or similar. If you are contacting a criminal, make sure you engage the service of an entertainment attorney who can offer expert advice.

Here is a sample letter you can use when contacting someone:

Letter:

Person

Company

dd/mm/yy

Re: [Title of your project(s) of sceenplay(s)]

Dear Sir or Madam

I write to inquire whether the theatrical and film rights to your story are available.

I was able to get your contact details from {name of reporter of journalist].

Your powerful and unique story touched me greatly and feels deeply that your story should be shared with others.

I would appreciate it if you could contact me at your earliest convenience at [telephone number]. Please feel free to reverse the charges.

Yours sincerely,

[Your name]

10: Urban Myths

Putting your script into a self-addressed registered mail envelop to yourself simply doesn’t cut it. You need to give your script to a registered third party.

Fade Out

Take your time to understand the structure of copyright.
Never tell anyone an idea until you have written it down as completely as possible and registered it.
Be professional. Keep track, by letter, of everyone you have discussed your screenplay with.
Make absolutely certain that you have necessary permission before you start writing.

Now it’s time to get an agent.

mm

About 

Elliot Grove is the founder of Raindance Film Festival and the British Independent Film Awards. He has produced over hundreds of short films and also five feature films, including the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead in 2006. He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

He has produced over 700 shorts and 6 features including the new action film AMBER.

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.