“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.”
Heather– this is a terrific, valuable info– THANK YOU!
Secondly, Heather’s post made me realize I didn’t mention the #1 way most working Hollywood writers protect their work when sending it to studios, networks, production companies, producers or other readers and buyers…
They send it through an agent, lawyer or other type of middleman.
Most professional screenwriters use an agent, which– in California– is a representative legally bonded by the state and empowered to procure work and negotiate contracts (different states have different rules about who can be an agent and what they can/can’t do).
Others use a manager, which– technically– are simply supposed to be career advisers and can’t legally procure work or negotiate contracts (but this doesn’t mean they don’t do it… the lines between agents and managers have become very fuzzy).
Rarely are lawyers used to submit material or procure work, but this doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Still, most lawyers simply negotiate, proof, and execute contracts.
Of course, if you don’t have an agent, lawyer, or manager, it’s tougher to submit work this way. If you have a lawyer friend– even if they’re not an official entertainment lawyer– perhaps you can ask them to submit your material anyway. It’s not the usual mode of business, but at least there’s some layer of legal protection… or, at the very least, the appearance of legal representation.
Having said all this, there’s still no guarantee of protection. As Heather points out, the only way to TRULY protect a piece of writing is through the U.S. Copyright Office, and– to be honest– I’ve never heard of a writer doing that. And as I pointed out yesterday, I don’t believe ideas DO get stolen in Hollywood… at least not on a regular basis.
At any rate, as a writer struggling to break in, what you should be worrying about isn’t how to protect your ideas… but how to get them in front of as many official buyers as possible…