Are you a screenwriter? Chances are you’ve sent plenty of scripts to production companies and desperately posted scripts to online libraries with the hopes of it getting noticed by producers. If you’re lucky enough for the script to get picked up, there’s a chance that it may or may not be used. Producers control the creative process, which means your original is subject to extensive revisions by several other screenwriters employed by the production companies. After all the edits, the final version may become a blockbuster hit, sprung from your genius idea.
As a novice or even a veteran screenwriter, often you’re unsophisticated in the law regarding the effect that it has on your work. You should know which laws are in your favor and which ones are not. After all, it is your idea, concept, and vision that is about to become a reality. Here are 3 things you need to know before sending your script to film producers.
1. Under Copyright Law, the idea itself is not protected, only the expression of ideas.
Copyright your work. The effect of the copyright is obtaining the exclusive right to reproduce and publish the expression of your ideas for the life of the author plus seventy years. Ideas are abstract. They’re independent from any specific concept. A character wearing a red shoe is an abstract idea. That single element is too generic to be worthy of a monopoly through copyright. But when those red shoes were placed on the feet of a lead character, giving her a magical power to travel to a fantasy land through the simple click of the heel, those shoes transformed from one basic idea into a combination of ideas, creating a protectable expression.
Although it’s not always easy to distinguish ideas from expressions, a screenwriter must create an impression in the mind of the reader about the idea to make it seem original. Note that a combination of ideas does not automatically make it copyrightable, but the more detailed and distinctive it is the better the chance for the grant of a copyright.
2. No matter what, the author cannot lose his right to terminate.
Assuming you obtain a copyright in your screenplay (which is encouraged), all is not lost when your work is sold to producers. The US Copyright Act reserves an indefeasible right to terminate “effective at any time approximately thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant”. This means ALL rights can revert back under the termination provision at the will of the author.
In order to qualify for this termination provision, the screenwriter must be an independent contractor. He works under his own terms in his own office or home, by his own schedule, controlling all the details of his work. Here, a work for hire or an employer/employee relationship cannot be formed between the author and producer.
A caveat to the termination provision is that the transferee can continue to exploit completed derivative works that are already on the market. This includes spinoffs, sequels, and merchandise.
3. There are other ways of protecting your work. Use them.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) is an organization designed by workers for workers. Its main goal is to determine screen credits, negotiate and administer compensation, along with assisting writers through various degrees of success. Membership is limited to those who have gained employment and/or sales within the Guild’s jurisdiction. The Guild utilizes a system in which units are earned according to the number of completed employment assignments or sales. The number of units earned determines the eligibility for full or partial membership.
As an intermediary between writers and producers, the Guild operates a script registry that facilitates the sharing of ideas. The registry is open to members and nonmembers. It’s essentially a private intellectual property system that is similar to copyright law except it’s not as broad but covers bases that the copyright system does not cover. For example, it protects ideas.
With the many wonderful benefits that the Guild offers, it’s comforting to know that there is an organization that zealously advocates for writers. In addition to determining screen credit, negotiating compensation, and operating a script registry, it also provides a voice in an industry where money and a big name makes the studios more controlling and dominant.
There some laws are in your favor. The key is to use preventative measures just in case you come across some infringing activity later on in your career. To cover all bases, most lawyers recommend both copyrighting your work and registering with the Writers Guild of America. The fees associated with registering far outweigh the costs of someone else using your material. In any case, it always helps to do your research.
Here are some recommended sites:
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