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How to Copyright a Script the Smart Way and Avoid These 5 Legal Pitfalls

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Sell a Screenplay
April 14, 2016 67 comments
how to copyright a script

How to Copyright a Script the Smart Way and Avoid These 5 Legal Pitfalls

This is a guest post by entertainment lawyer, Danny Jiminian, Esq. He lets us in on how to copyright a script and other insider legal knowledge no aspiring screenwriter should be without.

As if learning how to write a screenplay isn’t hard enough, you also have to make sure you know how to copyright a screenplay. And avoid certain other legal pitfalls.

It is very easy to overlook these risky liabilities because you’re so invested in getting your story and characters just right.

You probably don’t have a studio department that will clear your script for you before it’s too late. So we wanted to give you five tips that can help you avoid any liabilities that can come back to haunt you.

1. How to Copyright a Script: The First Steps ALL Writers Should Take

Always register your script with the US Copyright Office. The Writers Guild of America (East/West) serves a primary purpose of providing writers with a “public claim of authorship.” However, the federal U.S. Copyright registration offers that and two additional benefits.

Benefits of Using the US Copyright Office Over the WGA

1.  Federal copyright registration lasts longer. WGA branches keep your material on file for either five or ten years only. Or longer if you pay for renewals. However, U.S. screenplay copyright registration lasts for the life of the author, plus seventy years.

2.  You can file a stronger copyright infringement claim. If your copyright is registered before the infringement occurs, you can seek statutory damages and reimbursement of legal fees. That’s in addition to the basic “actual damages and infringer’s profits” when you sue.

This matters because it is difficult to determine the value of copyright and its infringement, so “actual damages and infringer’s profits” might not amount to much. In this situation, a victory in court without an award for statutory damages and legal fees would make you seriously reconsider the cost of suing. Even if you should in principle.

And if you haven’t heard it by now, don’t do the “poor man’s copyright”. This involves mailing your script to yourself and then storing it, unopened. It’s worthless and won’t hold up in court. Learn how to copyright a script by following the simple steps above and rest easy at night.

2. How to Copyright a Screenplay If You’re Cowriting It 

If you’re co-writing a screenplay, write up a collaborator’s agreement with all the writers you’re working with.

Too many creatives—from producers to directors to writers—find out too late the importance of having things in writing. If you have a writing partner for your script, nothing will hurt it more than the lack of a collaborator’s agreement if the relationship goes south.

Oral contracts are enforceable but difficult to enforce. If you want to be a professional, treat every aspect of your working relationship with the seriousness it deserves.

Collaborator’s Agreement Questions

What were the terms of contribution? Who owns what? How much will each party be paid and when? What happens if the script does not get sold or made?

These and more questions are the kinds of topics a good collaborator’s agreement will address.

We know some writers and creatives are averse to signing agreements because they don’t want to fracture the working relationship. But a working relationship that fractures during a meeting about a contract is probably too weak to begin with.

Have a lively discussion now and hash out the terms before writing the script. Leave it for later and disagreeing may be too late.

3. How to Copyright a Script Adapted From Another Source

Do NOT adapt from another copyrighted work without gaining permission. Ideas can come from anywhere at any time, but many of those ideas are composites of ideas and works that came before.

The world around us influences our ideas through all of the books, graphic novels, songs, movies, plays, cartoons, etc. that we consume.

Let’s say you see a stageplay and think it would make a great film. Then you set about writing a screenplay based on it. This is a big mistake if those works are under copyright protection. Remember, one of the protections copyright affords the owner is the right to prepare derivative works based on the original work.

You can’t use a song in a movie script without permission. You also can’t base a movie on a song without getting permission from the copyright owner.

If the work is in the public domain, then you don’t need permission. But always make sure it’s in the public domain first. Contact a lawyer who can confirm it first before you invest your time in writing the script.

how to copyright a script

4. How to Copyright a Script to Avoid Getting Sued for Music Use 

Here’s a bit of advice for the first-time screenwriter: don’t add specific music cues and references in your script.

As much as you might want to add recorded music that evokes an era or a theme, such as Crosstown Traffic, you better not put it in unless you already have permission.

This means either having a sync license and a master use license. Or being certain that you (or the producers) can pay for its usage.

A way around these legal pitfalls is to simply write something in your script along the lines of:

Elizabeth saunters over to the jukebox and puts on a classic 60s rock song.

Here’s a great example of creating a mood rather than calling out a specific song from the Election screenplay:

Paul is in the driver’s seat of his hitching big-wheeled PICKUP TRUCK. His door is open, and his radio blasts a SONG carefully selected to boost soundtrack album sales.

5. How to Copyright a Script to Avoid Getting Sued for Libel

Learning how to copyright a script also involves knowing how to write about real life people. Writers do not need the headache of a suit of libel or defamation or invasion of privacy/publicity which can result from writing a script about an actual person.

You do not libel someone simply by showing that person in fictional circumstances. Libel requires a false and defamatory statement of fact “of and concerning” an identifiable living person (or business entity.)

If real people are depicted in your work only as engaging in acts they actually engage in, there is no “falsity.” The key thing is that the person is living.

The deceased, in other words, cannot be defamed. But if you write a script including a living person and there are no identifiable characteristics, then you run a low risk of being sued.

It’s Best to Not Write About Living People

However, if there are identifiable characteristics then you may be accused of libel or defamation or invasion of privacy. There are defenses and privileges you can rely on if your script is based on someone living. Such as the facts being true, or your right to make fair comments and criticisms.

But if you are doing that you are already spending money in court that you would rather not. And it’s unlikely a studio, production company or distributor would even risk paying you for a script with that potential risk.

The easiest thing to do is to materially change all of the identifiable characteristics. Or get permission and secure the life story rights of all the living persons your script is based on.

You have plenty to worry about with your script. Can you finish it? Can you revise it and make it better? Can you get financing to get it made? But, unfortunately, the legal aspects of how to copyright a screenplay: the music rights, life rights, etc. are also something you need to be concerned with.

Luckily, these are tasks you can delegate to a lawyer or a knowledgeable producer but, at a minimum, you too should be aware of them.


How do you copyright a script? Are you doing things the right way and protecting yourself from any legal problems down the line? Let us know in the comments below.

how to copyright a scriptDanny Jiminian, Esq is an entertainment lawyer at For help in how to copyright a screenplay: getting permission from musicians and other copyright owners, clearing the script, negotiating life story rights, researching public domain works, registering it with the US Copyright Office and drafting collaborator’s agreements, contact him at [email protected]

how to copyright a script

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[© Photo credits: Pexels]

  1. JAMES says:

    Can you write just the name of the artist like ” Rick is listening to a song by the BEE GEES as he drive.”?

    1. SRP says:

      You can do, but something like “Rick is listening to an upbeat disco song as he drives” or “Rick nods his head along to a Bee Gees style song as he drives” would be safer.

  2. JAMES says:

    What about the mention of BRAND NAME such as FORD’S SHELBY COBRA MUSTANG, MITSUBISHI and PORSCHE? Even just for a screenplay contests?

    1. SRP says:

      It’s up to you. No one’s going to pass on your script over calling out car names, but on the other hand it’s best to do it if it highlights a character’s personality or serves as a plot device of some kind.

  3. Aaren J. Stewart says:

    Very informative and helpful, I hope I never encounter any of these problems or issues— if I do, I know who to call.
    Thanks, Aaren J. Stewart (aspiring screenwriter)

  4. Amber P says:

    Thanks for the great tips. I was just wondering about how to copyright my script properly!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Amber! Best of luck with the script.

  5. Nessie S says:

    Do I need to copyright my script with both WGA and US copyright office?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      No need. Just one or the other will do.

  6. Sanjit says:

    I must copyright my script soon. Thank you for this valuable information.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Sanjit!

  7. Nat says:

    Excellent advice. I will be submitting my script to you guys soon for coverage.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Nat. We look forward to it.

  8. Justin Davis says:

    Awesome advice, thanks so much Script Reader.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome Justin.

  9. Jerry E Cardelli says:

    This is good sense on 101 protection, however there is a large spectrum that no one actually addresses. It’s called borrowing and my understanding is that many writers study and borrow scene structure, ideas from dialogue composition which is allowed from movies or screenplays that are already produced. Old adage “nothing is really new just changed. There are a plethora of screenplays, handed around that are not made into movies, writers especially — TV, I’m not sure what process there is, but get fresh ideas from these screenplays. Is it fair or legal? Let’s say, I spend years on an idea of scene structure or dialogue and before I sell it as something fresh, it is seen on a TV SITCOM or movie, mine is no longer fresh. This is my biggest beef of handing my script to consultants or websites. You meet a producer who claims, it is not fresh. Where does it leave all of the rookie people who trust others? Remember I’m not talking the script! It may be one unique page only the writer would know. Now what? I never worry about the whole screenplay, being copied, the law protects it, once copyrighted. It’s those small portions that make my blood boil, when the arrogance of taking from others, is justified ok in Hollywood. What do you think?

  10. Jerry E Cardelli says:

    Other legals or attorneys on this post can chime in, it would be appreciated.
    I would think there would have to be some compensatory damages, being that a lot of shows and movies have made millions upon millions. What really amazes me… Is that it would have to be a juvenile act, because anyone in a higher echelon would know how ludicrous this is when they can easily offer a substantial amount for a script and would be able to cherry pick the whole script, without expensive risk of liability. However, I find it keeps happening with the same people, same shows, and some very, very prestigious people in this industry, that truly will surprise you.
    Your thoughts and thoughts from others would be well appreciated.

  11. Jerry E Cardelli says:

    Danny, do you imagine me getting any replies on my Posts. It would be nice. Nice audience is here now!

  12. Sergio Prieto says:

    Can I mention a couple of Famous actresses last names along with actual facts in my script? i. e. “Davis, Crawford everyone knows they had abortions”

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, there’s no problem with that.

  13. Alexandria Martinez says:

    I liked your tip to look into getting permission from any persons that are involved in the project. That way no one can be negative about the involvement in the project. My cousin would like this advice since she has been looking into copyright help.

  14. script writer says:

    What if you saw a real-life owner of a restaurant in a reality TV show and want to write a fictionalized account of her life and goings on in the restaurant? Do you show that person somehow or just keep writing off of your imagination since that’s all you had to go on in the first place? Changing names, location, etc.

  15. Ethan says:

    Where can I get the script to BOYHOOD?

  16. Jose Gonzalo says:

    Is it okay to watermark my screenplay?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s not recommended, Jose, as it comes off as a little paranoid.

  17. Dedicated Writer says:

    I always copyright my scripts with US Copyright office. Forget WGA.

  18. Laurence Jones says:

    What if my writing partner doesn’t want to admit I wrote more of the script than he did. We’re getting heat from industry and want to set things straight.

  19. Ted Carlson says:

    Does your website have a phone number? I’m having a tough time locating it but, I’d like to call you about my script.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      We don’t have a phone number but you can email us any time or book a Skype call.

  20. Samuel Lattari says:

    Thank you for this information Script Reader Pro!

  21. Aarav says:

    I am scared of copyright infrigement. What do I do if someone steal my idea?

  22. Lorita McLymond says:

    Really nice post. Helps me learn how to copyright a script for sure.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped, Lorita.

  23. HoushangG says:

    Great post I will contact your lawyer for help with my script. Thank u.

  24. Shelly says:

    I’m a director but I’ve just forwarded this onto a writer I know. She’ll love it.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great, thanks, Shelly!

  25. Lucien Howard says:

    Thank you for sharing script reader, what a wonderful resource Ive stumbled upon.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Welcome aboard, Lucien!

  26. stefan says:


    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Cheers, Stefan!

  27. Desmond says:

    I don’t even understand what your talking about. I thought I could mail my script to myself an not open it and that was enough?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s not recommended, get your script properly copyrighted!

  28. Anthony Gamble says:

    I have been reading a lot of professaional screenplays and they include music in them, like actual songs on the radio. But you said we shouldn’t??

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s not advisable in a spec script, no. Remember, pro writers are not trying to sell a script for the first time.

  29. dwayne thomas says:

    I love this site!! thank you to my brother for showing it to me I think its gonna help my screenwriting 100x

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Welcome aboard, Dwayne!

  30. Estelle says:

    This has helped thank u x

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Estelle, good luck with the script!

  31. Roni says:

    WHere do I go to copywrite my script?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You can try either the US Copyright Office or WGA. Or both.

  32. Shira R. says:

    Knowing how to copyright a script is hard but you have done a excellent job in this subject!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Shira!

  33. Sylvia Prowse says:

    Do you know if I need to copyright my script in my country or in America?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It doesn’t matter where you live – we recommend having your script copyrighted at the WGA or US Copyright Office.

  34. Arthur says:

    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you people are worrying about things that may or may not happen down teh line.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s always best to copyright your script once it’s written, but yes writers could always do more writing 🙂

  35. Chandra says:

    Appreciation to SRP for this. It has helped me a lot.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Chandra!

  36. Ayce says:

    Is it legal if my character is singing a part of a song in my script?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      It’s generally not advisable not to include songs that you don’t have the rights to.

  37. William Whiteford says:

    Thanks so much for another opening eyes post.
    The other benefit of using the US Copyright Office over the WGA: their services are really available worldwide.
    Though the WGA declare the same, when I tried to contact their Registry, they denied the access because of the security rules. And I am living in a (wrong) East European region.

  38. Toni Cloutier says:

    Thanks, Danny and SRP,
    My question is.. Can you mention a song title to another character?

    Me: Have you heard The Gambler by Kenny Rogers?
    You: No, I live under a rock.

    Is this okay?
    Thanks so much.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, that’s totally fine. 🙂

      1. Toni Lynn Cloutier says:

        You guys have been AMAZING and SO HELPFUL with my script through your REGULAR SCRIPT COVERAGE services. This answer puts FADE OUT on my script!


        I HIGHLY recommend for anyone needing help. 🙂

        1. Script Reader Pro says:

          Thanks for the shoutout, Toni Lynn! We really appreciate it 🙂

  39. Malia says:

    What if I copyrighted, through US Copyright and also WGA, an early version of my script but there have been revisions including additional scenes?

    Additionally, how does US Copyright handle title changes?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You only need to re-register if major changes have been made to the script. So if you’ve only added, say, three scenes, then you wouldn’t need to re-copyright.

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