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

Without a studio clearance department or the help of an entertainment lawyer.

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by Script Reader Pro in How to Sell a Screenplay
April 14, 2016 88 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 co-writing 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

how to copyright a script

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