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

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Rights During Development

Often known as the dreaded development hell, writers have specific rights during this process. The term development stipulates the time before production of any acquired screenplay. Development is well before pre-production and usually entails months, and sometimes years, of work before the financing for any production is given.

It’s basically the rewrite phase, but under the direction of a producer, development executive, etc.

Spec Script Rights

If an individual or company options your work, the MBA guarantees you the right to undertake the first rewrite during that option period, which is usually six months to a year. During this time, the writer is employed by the powers that be in that respect. You, the screenwriter, can always waive this right, but it would be smart to avoid doing that because it could also affect your right to get paid for additional rewrites in the future.

If an individual or company purchases your work, thus acquiring your original feature or teleplay, you have the right to the first rewrite in that scenario as well, unless you waive that right. By law, they can’t force you to waive that right or use a possible waiver on your behalf as a negotiation point for your contract. A waiver must be freely granted by you, the screenwriter.

Original Assignment Rights

When you’re hired to write an original assignment for features or television—hence, you’re not being hired to rewrite a pre-existing script—you can be replaced after the first draft if the rights holders want to bring on a different writer. The MBA does specify that a senior production executive must meet with you in a timely fashion to discuss such an occurrence. Regardless, the point to take away here is that when you write on assignment, you can be replaced.

Also note that when you sign a contract, the contract will normally stipulate that you receive certain payments per draft. If you’re replaced, you won’t get the whole contract’s monetary compensation—only that for which you’ve worked on.

If you’ve managed to stay on as the writer for additional drafts, you will also have the added benefit of an additional rewrite if and when a director or principal actor is attached. You will be offered the first opportunity to perform revisions if that happens. This right expires three years after delivery of the first writer’s first or final set of revisions, whichever occurs first, so it’d be smart to negotiate an extension or elimination of the three-year limitation, if you have the means to do so through representation or through your own negotiations.

This all, of course, depends on the contract at hand as they often vary. The MBA does at least offer screenwriters the basic minimums that signatories have to follow. But those are just the minimums, as most contracts are negotiated to offer more.

Consultation Rights for Script Notes and Requested Changes

An interesting inclusion within the MBA stipulates that the writer has the right to receive direct explanations for any and all notes that they are given. This prevents you from having to apply notes and changes without reasons why and without the chance to discuss.

Assignment Pitching Rights

When a studio or company is looking to assign a writer(s) to a project, they usually send notice to agencies and management contacts. Multiple writers and writing teams will be given the chance to pitch their take on the assignment.

The MBA offers you the right to ask what the approximate numbers of other candidates is. This affords you the chance to know the stakes at hand.

Script Cover Pages During Development

During development, many writers may have been attached at one time or another. However, the final credits of the projects are not determined until much later in the process after the project has been produced (but obviously before the film is released).

So the MBA stipulates that the cover page must include the name of the first writer followed by the word revisions. Then the names of all subsequent writers are to follow, indicated by putting the words “current revisions by” followed by the writer’s name and the date the material is submitted to the company.

Your Rights if the Studio or Company Is Sued

If there’s a copyright infringement lawsuit or any other action that is filed or threatened, take comfort in knowing that the company must pay attorney fees and travel expenses for depositions or court hearings, and the cost of copying documents from your files. You, the screenwriter, would be covered under their errors and omissions insurance policy. You would thus be indemnified against damages and legal expenses, including attorney’s fees, and would be relieved of liability.

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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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