Copyrights and Registrations

Before you start sending out your finished screenplay, which has been re-written and polished a few times, you'll want to protect your work from theft.

That can be done in three ways, each of which improves your chances of winning your case in court if some production house decides to steal your idea.

1. Poor Man's Copyright:

The Poor Man's Copyright is a term used for people who attempt to protect there work with nothing more than the cost of postage.

Basically, a writer will seal their screenplay in a postage envelope, take it to the nearest post office, and mail it to themselves. Once it arrives in the mail, it will remain sealed until such time as it needs to be opened in court.

The idea is the date stamped on the envelope by the post office, and the fact the screenplay is sealed within the envelope, will prove your screenplay idea is older than the copyright or registration date of the production house's version.

While this seems logical in theory, such a ploy will likely not hold up in court. After all, anyone can unseal on envelope with a little help from the steam of their boiling potatoes.

If you want to do this, then do it. But don't do it in lieu of the other two means of creative protection.

2. Writer's Guild of America Registration:

The next best way to protect your work is through registration with the Writer's Guild of America.

This is also fairly low cost (about $35 per registration), and an advantage to registration is that you can register an idea for a screenplay long before you register the finished product. You can create an outline, beat sheet, synopsis, or summary for your film, and register it before you start work on the screenplay.

So if you are in a screenplay writer's group where group members openly talk about the screenplays they are working on, you can feel a little better about sharing your blockbuster premise knowing the idea has at least SOME protection.

The problem with that is... well, all you've really protected is an idea, not the finished product. I can't tell you how many times I've come up with a great premise for a movie only to see the idea play out on screen soon after. It happens all the time. There is nothing new under the sun.

So register your idea if you want to, but make sure you foot the money and create a new registration for the finished screenplay.

If you live on the West Coast, you'll register with the Writer's Guild of America - West.

If you live on the East Coast, you'll register with the Writer's Guild of America - East.

If you live in the middle of the country and you're not sure with which group to register, I'm sure either will work. Just take an educated guess.

3. Federal Copyright:

Of course the absolute best protection available for your screenplay is through registration with the Federal Copyright Office, but for this you must have a COMPLETE screenplay, polished and ready for production.

Registration with the Copyright Office can be handled in one of three ways.

Method #1:

Go to the Federal Copyright Office Website, download the paperwork, fill it out, and mail it, along with your screenplay and any required fees, back to the Copyright Office. You may even be able to do everything online.

The problem with doing it yourself is many screenwriters file their scripts with the wrong division. There are different forms for screenplays and novels and other creative forms of expression. You MUST be sure to register using the correct forms. I believe the link above takes you directly to the pages to register screenplays, but something could change at anytime.

If you are looking to save money, this is the cheapest way to register with the Copyright Office. Of course, getting it wrong means wasted time and money, and maybe a stolen idea.

Method #2:

Go to a legal website such as Legal Zoom and file for a copyright using the website's assistance.

This will cost more money, but it will increase your chances of getting it done correctly and in a timely fashion.

Method #3:

Hire an attorney.

I know this seems like an extreme way to file for a copyright, but this is the best possible way to do it to ensure it is done correctly and in a way that will hold up best in court if the need to do so should ever occur.

Yes, it MAY cost more money than a legal website, but you'd be surprised.

You don't need to hire a high-priced, entertainment lawyer to file a simple copyright. Just about any civil attorney in your area should be able to handle it, and often for not much more than you would pay at Legal Zoom.

My wife and I have a family attorney we use for all our civil matters (wills, property sales, etc.), and he also handles any copyrights I might need to file.

All That Being Said...:

You shouldn't rely on any one method to protect your work. Use all three registration and copyright ideas.

But the fact is, if a corrupt producer likes your idea and decides to steal your idea, he's going to do it. Likely all the copyrights and registrations and other protections in the world won't be able to stop him.

After all, he's got more money than you do, and can hire better attorneys.

Larry Meistrich, Academy Award-winning producer of Sling Blade, once said that if you work in Hollywood long enough and write enough screenplays, it is only a matter of time before an idea gets stolen. There's not much that can be done about it.

But don't let that discourage you. For every corrupt producer, there are many more who work the right way. Keep writing, and keep sending out great screenplays.