Is Your Screenplay Protected?
Practice safe screenwriting! Once you’ve finished your screenplay make sure you’re protected. “But Tony, how do I know for sure that I’m protected?” That’s an excellent question. In this article I will discuss the ways writers have attempted to protect their work, what has been successful, and what hasn’t. If you want to be certain that no one will steal your work, fear not. You’re more likely to win the lottery. Which I guess if your work is covered, it could be just like winning the lottery. So pay attention!
You may have heard of the “poor man’s copyright” where you send yourself a copy of your work via the United States Postal Service in order to prove ownership. While that may help keep the Post Office in business, it does very little to protect your work. It won’t hold up in a court of law. However, back in 1978 copyright legislation was passed that stated once a work is created and “fixed” in some recognizable way (saving it on your computer with a “created” date stamp) it automatically marks that work as officially yours! The bad news? That doesn’t mean squat in a court of law either when it comes to statutory damages. If you want someone to pay for using your work without permission, you need something more substantial.
“So then I should register my script with the WGA?” Unfortunately the WGA doesn’t do much to protect you either. It’s kind of like using a sandwich baggie and a twist tie instead of a condom. The WGA will provide an employee to vouch for you in court, but it still won’t help in collecting money from those who stole your work. The biggest reason people use the WGA is because it’s cheaper than buying a copyright, but not by that much.
“Then I should register a copyright on my script?” Absolutely! A copyright with the government protects your work here in the states as well as outside the U.S. A copyright means that you’ll get money if you can prove that someone stole your work. “What do you mean prove?” Well, I mean you’ll have to prove that the people or business that produced the work that you claim to be yours at some point had access to your work. If you can’t prove that, then you’ll have to prove that your story is identical to the one that got produced… without a shadow of a doubt. Read Jim Cirile’s story to get a better understanding.
To tie this all up in a neat little bow, once you’ve typed your script into your computer and saved it, you have proof that it’s yours. Registering with the WGA (East or West) affords you a tiny bit more protection (read “hardly any”). Registering a copyright gives you the most protection, but just like with sex, don’t go sliding it in anywhere. Know whom you’re giving it to and keep records. It’ll come in handy if you need to go to court. Until next week, keep writing!