What Is Copyright? A Guide for Screenwriters
How do you copyright your script to protect it from theft? Sending your script to anyone, especially to producers, can be a daunting moment. Whether you’re merrily sending your script to anyone who’ll read it, or you’re anxious about sending it to anyone in case they steal it, it’s good to be informed about copyright.
If you have an agent, this is something that they can help you with, explain to you and give professional legal advise on. But if you don’t yet have representation you need to act as your own agent and understand your rights around your work.
This article will focus on copyright in the UK and the USA and is intended as a simple guide only and not as professional legal advice. For information on copyright protection in other territories or for specific advice we recommend seeking professional legal advice.
In both the UK and USA, you automatically own the copyright to any work you create the moment it is tangibility expressed.
Here is what the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) say about copyright on their FAQ: “As an author you automatically have copyright over your script, unless you assign it to someone else. You do not have to go through any formal procedure – if you wrote it, and you have not infringed someone else’s copyright, then the copyright is yours. Copyright means that no one can use (copy) your work without your permission.”
Copyright proof – free
Copyright in your work automatically belongs to you, but it is advisable to have proof of your authorship, and it doesn’t have to cost you anything.
In their fantastically helpful WGGB video-discussion (see resources below) media lawyer and writer Robert Taylor suggests that good working practices are enough to protect your work.
He recommends keeping a record of what you’re creating as you go along, saving each day’s work as a separate file with the date. That does create a lot of files but these can easily be kept on a separate drive.
This simple working practice is a great way to ensure you have evidence to show you created the work on a specific date and can demonstrate how the work has evolved.
Script registration – small fee
As long you have the dated files of your work you can prove your authorship and make a claim for copyright infringement. However, many writers like the added reassurance of having registered their script with an organisation.
If you want to register your script, what are the options to do that and what are the differences between them?
In the UK the most commonly used service is Script Vault.
In the USA there are two different types of script registration open to you.
1) Writers’ Guild of America Script Registry
The WGA East and WGA West offer a script registration service to both members and non-members and to non-US citizens.
What does this provide you with? From their website: “Registration provides a dated record of the writer’s claim to authorship of a particular literary material”
2) US Library of Congress Copyright Office
This registration entitles a claimant to sue for statutory damages and to win attorney’s fees, should the court settle in their favour. You can view the US Government Copyright FAQs here.
It is unclear if it is possible for non-US citizens to register their script with the US Copyright Office. If this is something which is important to you, there is more information here.
For a more detailed explanation of the differences between WGA and US Copyright Office script registration check out Chris Schiller’s article on the topic of script registration.
Can I copyright my idea?
Remember, copyright protects the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. So, a script or screenplay, as a detailed expression of an idea, is copyrightable. But what about before you’ve developed your idea to script stage?
If you come up with an idea that is so far only as detailed as ‘a fantasy story about dragons and witches in a far away kingdom’, that on its own cannot be copyrighted.
Similarly, a title or even a logline doesn’t contain enough unique detail to be copyrighted.
However, a treatment (prose document) detailing your unique expression of that idea, the world, the themes, the characters, your story ideas and plot twists, is copyrightable. The more detailed and unique the expression of the idea, the easier it is to prove your copyright.
Who is reading your work?
To claim copyright infringement you need to demonstrate not just that a script (or film or tv show) closely resembles yours but that the person responsible for it had access to your work ie they need to have been able to copy it.
There are two key things you can do to mitigate against this:
1) Keep a record of everyone you send your work to and the date of submission.
2) Make it clear in the accompanying email that it cannot be passed on without your express permission.
At Script Angel we have the utmost respect for the rights of writers and are long-standing affiliate members of the WGGB. We have always had a standard practice of signing an agreement with every writer we work with, which includes a clause stating that we won’t pass your work on to anyone else without your express permission.
What should you put on the front page to assert your copyright?
There is a lot of conflicting advice out there on the subject of whether asserting your ownership on the front page of a script makes you look like a paranoid amateur or a diligent professional.
Apart from your name and the date (just the year, or mm/yy or dd/mm/yy), you don’t need to add any other assertions onto the front page because, as we’ve established, the law automatically gives you the copyright in your work as soon as you create it. Every writer sending a script out and every professional in the industry taking receipt of scripts should know that.
However, it doesn’t do any harm to add additional assertions if you feel anxious about it, such as marking the script as ‘CONFIDENTIAL’, adding your WGA Registration Number or adding the copyright symbol ©.
In all honesty, the vast majority scripts I’ve read from professional, repped writers over my 20+year career have not had any such additional assertions – they know they own it and I know they own it, until such time as we / the production company I am working for enters into an option or assignment of rights agreement with the writer.
On this one, you must do whatever feels right to you.
How worried should I be about my script being stolen?
Most writers that have been writing for long enough can recount seeing a script sale mentioned in the trades or a movie greenlight announcement that resembled a script they have written. Most are not the result of theft but because the idea has been in the air.
Many of us are inspired by the same themes and universal experiences, so if you come up with a lot of stories, it is likely you will see stories that have some similarities to yours out in the world.
This is particularly true if your story is very much of the zeitgeist (the spirit of the age). There will be thousands of writers writing a story about a pandemic right now, in every genre. And not just the specifics of a pandemic but the themes that have emerged from our collective experience; of loneliness and isolation, of panic and fear, of communities and protecting the vulnerable.
Remember, you can only copyright your unique and original expression of an idea.
So yes, sharing your script brings with it the risk of theft, but you can take steps to protect your work and it’s also true that it takes more work to steal your story and try to get away with it than it does to just buy it from you.
And if you don’t send your script to anyone, it’s going to be very hard to get it made! We work with writers through our screenwriter coaching service to help them figure out when their script is industry-ready and who to send it to.
View the WGGB video-discussion on copyright here.
The WGGB offers free legal advice to its members. You can find out about joining the Writers Guild of Great Britain here.
For US writers, find out more about the WGA East and WGA West:
For some great guides on a variety of legal issues pertaining to screenwriters, check out the articles from US entertainment attorney Chris Schiller.