First Draft: What Are Your Protected Rights as a Screenwriter?

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In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


Hollywood is a pretty big and intimidating place for many.

We’ve all heard and read the cautionary tales of Hollywood stealing the ideas of screenwriters. While this has and will happen on occasion, the truth of the matter is that these instances are usually single anomalies spread out over the course of decades.

Hollywood is more risk averse than it ever has been. The tales of studios or producers simply taking a script and changing out the names and settings to “make it their own” just doesn’t happen anymore—at least when dealing with legitimate individuals and companies. We live in a litigation-happy world where millions of dollars can be at stake. Studios and companies don’t like to be sued, whether the lawsuits in question have weight or are frivolous money-grabs.

The reason most companies won’t accept unsolicited material is the sole reaction of frivolous and unwarranted lawsuits of the past.

Screenwriters need to understand both their protected rights—which we’ll cover below—but also the reality that just because a studio or production company has released a film with similar concept, stories, settings, and characters doesn’t mean that they’ve somehow stolen those elements from them. The truth is, original ideas are hard to come by these days. Everyone is influenced by the movies, television shows, and literary fiction that came before. Thus it’s only natural that a large collective of creative minds will often come up with similar content.

I pitched a television series to some key individuals in the studio system a few years back. It was a time travel show embedded in reality about a team of historians that had time travel technology that they used to investigate historical moments. They tried to keep the technology a secret from the public, military, and government to avoid misuse of it. One of their peers decided to go rogue with the technology and a specialized team was sent to race after him in time. Each episode would cover an iconic moment of history, offering a unique history lesson as the team tried to find the man that had run amok with the technology.

When the trailer for NBC’s renewed show Timeless came out, my jaw dropped—it was as if I had jumped forward in time and was watching the trailer of my own series that I had been developing and pitching for years. Needless to say, I went through the production company names, producer names, and such, and found no connection to who I had taken it to. I was selling it on pitch only during other meetings, so there was no script. Just the overall concept.

Most novice screenwriters would declare that somehow the network and producers got a hold of their pitch and stole it. I hear and read that fear on a daily basis from people. But the truth is that it was just a concept that was ripe to be conjured by many. And the powers that be that conjured their own version of it beat me to the punch.

The biggest mistake screenwriters can make is to back off on marketing their concepts for fear of them being stolen. It’s just not a logical thing to worry about as long as you keep a tight record of who you submit the project to and always be sure that you’re submitting your work to legitimate companies. A simple IMDBPro lookup will do you wonders in that respect.

But beyond that, what are your protected rights as a screenwriter?

We’ll use the provisions and overscale suggestions offered by the WGA and break them down to the finer points and broad explanations so that you, the screenwriter, will know your creative rights in any given situation in Hollywood. Our focus will be more on feature script rights, while briefly touching on the expanded television writer rights.

Covered Rights Only Apply to Guild Members and WGA Signatory Companies

The WGA negotiates rights that are part of the collective bargaining agreement—the Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA)—which covers most work done by Guild members and must be followed by WGA Signatory Companies.

Writers Guild members must abide by what is know as Working Rule 8, which states that members are to work for and sell or option literary material only to companies that have signed a collective bargaining agreement with the Guild. Which means that guild members have to work with signatory companies and those signatory companies have to abide by the MBA statutes.

When screenwriters deal with independent producers and production companies that aren’t WGA signatories, these detailed rights within the MBA do not apply. That’s when you see screenwriters working for free or very little compensation compared to what is guaranteed by the MBA. So understand that if you’re in that situation, you can only use the MBA as a guide to your compensation working with non-signatory companies and individuals.

But let’s assume that you’ve thankfully gotten to a level where you’re dealing with legitimate signatories.

Copyright

The copyright holder of any given property—in this case, the screenplay—has exclusive ownership of five rights:

  1. Reproduction of Copies
  2. Distribution of Copies
  3. Performance Rights
  4. Public Display Rights
  5. The Right to Prepare Derivative Works

As a screenwriter writing an original spec script—a screenplay written under speculation that you will sell it to someone—the moment you write the script is the moment that you own that copyright of it, which includes all exclusive ownership rights mentioned above.

Technically, from a legal standpoint, your script should include the copyright symbol or the word “copyright,” the date, and your name to preserve the copyright. Not doing so forces you to risk the legal aspect of having your work in the public domain where anyone can copy and distribute it.

For a more secure copyright, a filing with the U.S. Copyright Office is ideal. This allows you to use such a record in litigation if the copyright ever comes into question within a court of law and arbitration. Know that such a copyright is only applicable to how that draft of the screenplay that you submitted appears then and there. Variations of it beyond that are not covered.

When you sell a script to a company or individual, you legally transfer your copyright ownership to them, which is dictated in the signed agreements.

Separation of Rights can certainly come into play as well, where elements of copyright can be negotiated on different levels. You can refer to the WGA site for those details.

Finally, the WGA does offer a service where you can register literary material with them. The fee is currently $10 for members and $20 for non-members. This registration is nothing more than a virtual and physical time stamp recording the date of registration. If there is ever a dispute over authorship, the WGA works as a witness that can testify to establish the writer’s possession of the specified material on the registration date. But know that legally this does not replace an actual U.S. Copyright registration.

Overall, how you protect yourself and your screenplays is up to you. Beyond the legalities, the reality of the situation, as mentioned above, is that studios and companies in Hollywood don’t want to be sued. It’s cheaper for them to purchase your screenplay, have the copyright signed over to them, and then produce it, as opposed to stealing it, producing it with any variations, and then having to deal with bad press and profit shares as a result of a lawsuit.

Guild and U.S. Copyright registrations aren’t a requirement to market your script. But if you’re worried, they can offer you some added protection and piece of mind.

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1 Comment

  1. Tommy G Warren / Spiderwood

    July 18, 2017 at 6:47 pm

    As a Writer of Short Story’s and Screenplays I always protect the property as described by Ken’s article. However, I’m not paranoid about telling the Story as many in the ‘Hollywood Storyworld’ seem to be, mainly because they fear the stealing of their story. It’s said there’s only 36 stories, but there are millions of variations of those stories!

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