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How To Copyright A Script And Other Legal Tips For Screenwriters

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by Script Reader Pro in Life As A Screenwriter
April 14, 2016 17 comments
how to copyright a script

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

As if navigating the fundamentals of scriptwriting to create a great script was not 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 are so invested in getting your characters, your dialogue, your plot and so on, just right.

Since you probably don’t have a studio department that will clear your script for you before it’s too late, I wanted to give you five tips that can help you avoid all the liabilities that can come back to haunt you later.

1. How To Copyright A Script

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

Federal copyright registration lasts longer: WGA branches keep your material on file for either five or ten years, and longer if you pay for renewals.

However, U.S. screenplay copyright registration lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.

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 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 a copyright and its infringement so “actual damages and infringer’s profits” might not amount to much.

In that 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 (i.e. mailing your script to yourself and then storing it, unopened).

Trust me — it’s worthless and won’t hold up in court. Get yourself a proper script copyright and rest easy at night.

2. Get A Collaborators Agreement

If you’re co-writing a screenplay, write up a collaborator’s agreement with any and all writers you are writing with.

Too many creatives, from producers to directors to writers, find out too late the importance of having things in writing.

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

If you have a writing partner for your script, nothing will hurt it more than the lack of a collaborator’s agreement when the relationship goes sour.

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.

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

Have a lively discussion now and hash out the terms before writing the script and disagreeing later when it’s too late.

3. The Perils of Adaptation

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

To put it more precisely, the world around us influences our ideas through all of the books, graphic novels, songs, movies, plays, cartoons, paintings, poems, sculptures, video games, dances, documentaries and more that we consume.

You see a painting or read a play and think this would make a great film and so you set about writing a script based on it.

This is a big mistake if those works are still under copyright protection. Remember, one of the protections copyright affords the owner, is the right to prepare derivative works based on the original work.

Just like you can’t use a song in a movie 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 make sure it is in the public domain by contacting a lawyer who can confirm that it is in the public domain before you invest the time in writing your script.

4. How To Highlight Music In Your Screenplay

Here’s a bit of advice for the novice and 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 “Voodoo Chile” by Hendrix in the background of your scene, you better not put it in unless you already have permission (a sync license and a master use license) or are certain that you (or the producers) can pay for its usage.

Instead, you can write in your script something like “Elizabeth puts on some classic 60’s rock on the jukebox”.

Or do as Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor did in Election: “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. The Issue of Life Rights

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.

Now to be clear, 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 engaged in, there is no “falsity.”

The key thing is that the person is LIVING.

Dead people can not be defamed. If you write a script about someone living and there are no identifiable characteristics then you run a low risk of being sued.

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 either 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?

Unfortunately, the legal aspects such as how to copyright a screenplay, 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 to copyright a scriptDanny Jiminian, Esq is an entertainment lawyer at www.djimlaw.com For help in getting permission from musicians and other copyright owners, clearing the script, negotiating life story rights, researching public domain works, registering your script with the US Copyright Office, and drafting collaborator’s agreements, you can contact him at [email protected]

 

17 Comments
  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!

  5. Nessie S says:

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

  6. Sanjit says:

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

  7. Nat says:

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

  8. Justin Davis says:

    Awesome advice, thanks so much Script Reader.

  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.

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