READER QUESTION: How Should I Protect or Copyright My Writing?

Hey, everyone–

Today’s reader question comes from Joseph, who writes…

“I have recently finished my first spec script and am about to start the revision process. I am planning to give the first draft to some writer friends of mine, one is a professional screenwriter, in order to get some feedback. Although I trust them, I want to be sure that my investment and work are secure. When should I register my script with the copyright office?

Thanks for the question, Joseph!  I hear this question a lot, so you’re speaking for a lot of writers out there.

Also, be prepared… I know my answer is going to stir up some controversy, so be prepared.  And if it does stir up controversy—if anyone reading wants to comment—please comment below!  (I love getting good heated chatter on the comment boards!)

So, here goes…

Part One (non-controversial):

Screenwriters don’t actually register scripts with the U.S. Copyright Office.  They register them with the Writers Guild of America, the labor union which represents and protects most writers working in film, TV, and even radio.  This is a super-simple process which you can now do online for $20 (click HERE to go right to the WGA’s registration page).  You don’t even have to be a member of the Guild to do this—anyone can register their script, treatment, reality TV idea, etc.!

(To be fair, you probably COULD register your work with the copyright office, but I’ve honestly never heard of anyone doing this, and I have no idea how it’s done.  The WGA is the standard registration outlet for screenwriters.  I’ve also heard you can put your script in an envelope and mail it back to yourself.  Then, simply keep the unopened envelope in a safe place; the postmark indicates the date on which the contents were created, proving you wrote the script before that date.  But again—the real registration place is the WGA.)

Having said that, everything you write is—in theory—legally copyrighted as soon as you put it down on paper.  So a WGA registration isn’t necessarily better proof than simply mailing your script back to you.  Sure, the WGA registration process is more specific and specialized than simply mailing a script to yourself, but it’s not necessarily BETTER.  

(To be honest, I’ve never heard of anyone claiming their script was stolen, then using WGA registration as proof to win their case.  Maybe it has happened; I’ve just never heard of it.  I will say: the Guild often steps in to arbitrate rewrite disputes, like when George Clooney went “fi-core” early this year over Leatherheads, and the WGA is usually very fair in these disputes.)  (I don’t know why Clooney was so upset… if I were him, I wouldn’t have WANTED rewrite credit on Leatherheads.)

Part Two (here comes the controversial part):

While I never discourage anyone from registering their scripts with the WGA, I don’t usually “encourage” it, either.  Mainly because: IT DOESN’T REALLY MATTER.  Here’s why…

TV and movie ideas rarely get stolen.  I know people think they do… and we’ve all heard legends and horror stories of “I know a guy who wrote a script just like Quarantine, he tried selling it, and two years later another company came out with a movie just like it”… but the truth is…

IDEAS RARELY GET STOLEN IN HOLLYWOOD.

First of all, there are no new ideas out there.  My old screenwriting teacher used to say, “Whatever you’re working on, you must always assume there are five other identical projects in development at the exact same time”… and he’s right.  I once had a student approach me at one of my classes, claiming he had an original idea that had NEVER been thought of—he was sure of it—and he wanted to know how to protect it.  But when he pitched me the logline, it was just like a TV series already in development at two different networks.

Now, just because there are similar projects out there isn’t reason enough to not worry about protecting your work.  What it means is this:

IT’S RARELY YOUR IDEA ITSELF THAT HAS VALUE… IT’S THE EXECUTION OF THAT IDEA.

In other words, ideas themselves are almost worthless; it’s a writer’s unique take on any idea that gives it value.

I often use the example of The Cosby Show and Everybody Loves Raymond.  On paper, these are nearly identical TV shows: befuddled dads attempt to maintain control over their worlds as they navigate marriage and fatherhood.  But the execution of these shows—how their storytellers see the worlds in which they live—is drastically different, and no one would accuse Raymond creators Phil Rosenthal or Ray Romano of ripping off Bill Cosby.

You can probably come up with a million different examples, shows or movies that are similar but have very different takes… Fringe and The X-Files, The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes, etc.

Executive, producers, networks, and studios know this.  After all, they’re not just looking for good ideas… they’re looking for good writers who can EXECUTE those ideas.  Writers who have unique perspectives and fresh ways of seeing the world.  Which means if you’ve done your job well, in both developing and writing your script, your story can’t be told without you.  

Thus, the best protection your script has is to make sure you’ve told a story ONLY YOU CAN TELL. Or rather: make sure you’ve written a story only you can tell in the way you would tell it… and in someone else’s hands it becomes a different story.

So, am I suggesting you don’t protect your work?  NO.  If spending $20 on a WGA registration gives you peace of mind, I say GO FOR IT.  (And for $20, why not?)  But I certaily wouldn’t let NOT being registered stand in the way of showing my script to people or getting feedback.

And whatever you do, DO NOT—repeat: DO NOT—put your WGA registration number on the front of your script.  Don’t even write “WGA registered,” which some fledgling screenwriters do.  THIS IS A SURE SIGN OF AN AMATEUR.  Professional screenwriters do not do this… and the moment producers, execs, or agents get a script with this emblazoned on the script, the thought that flashes through their mind is: “amateur.”  And while they’ll still judge the script on its own merits, you’ve already planted a tiny seed that may—even a tiny bit—affect their read.

So, to sum up: go ahead and register your script.  It can’t hurt.  But know that you’re simply paying for peace of mind, to quell your own fears (which, as a neurotic writer, I know can be overwhelming)… not necessarily any genuine protection or stamp of professionalism.

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2 thoughts on “READER QUESTION: How Should I Protect or Copyright My Writing?

  1. Heather

    It may be that writers don’t typically register scripts with the US copyright office, but I can tell you (as an attorney) that the ONLY way to get into federal court with a claim of copyright infringement is with a US copyright.

    The WGA registration won’t be enough (which is probably why screenwriters don’t use it in court to claim copyright infringement).

    Mailing a copy of the script to yourself (and leaving it unopened with the postage dated) won’t do you any good either, legally.

    This is not to say that Chad’s advice here is incorrect; what is written here may very well be what screenwriters do. But legally, the US copyright is the only one that will stand up in court.

    But even that will only protect the *expression* of the idea in your screenplay. Ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted, so the script must be extremely close to yours to fit the definition of copyright infringement. A similar plot won’t be sufficient.

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