You’ve written a screenplay, a book, some poems, a novel – your latest literary creation. Now what? If you’re like most writers, you’ll suffer the inevitable paranoia that your work will be plagiarized the minute you send it to a producer hungry for the next big hit. You think you’ve written the most perfect screenplay known to man. Ok, so it’s not perfect, you admit, but the IDEA is great. Surely, they’ll pinch the idea!?
You are your own greatest fan. Truthfully, your idea is probably not as good when it hits the real world; no matter what fantasy you have created about it. As writers (and I include myself in this scenario!), we are all sadly deluded as to our own greatness “Not me”, I hear you saying, “I really AM great… speak for yourself!” Well, yes… you too.
Let’s dispel some common myths about writing and copyright, as there seems to be a common confusion in this country as to what it’s all about.
“Copyright is automatic”
That’s right. It’s automatic – the second the ink dries! If you’ve created a literary or artistic work, copyright is created automatically by virtue of its creation. The UK ratified what’s called The Berne Convention with effect from 5 December 1887 and it’s this law that protects you.
It is a good idea for you to mark your copyright work with the copyright symbol © followed by your name and the date, to warn others against copying it, but it is not legally necessary in the UK.
Ever wonder why produces two films about a comet hitting the earth (Armageddon and Deep Impact)? That’s because you cannot protect ideas, only the expression of an idea. Anyone that’s ever sent their script to Hollywood will know that it comes back unopened anyway. Why? They’re all too worried about law suits. Trust me… if they like your idea… they’ll buy it. If you want to send your script to Jerry Bruckheimer, by the way, it has to go through a recognized literary agent (that doesn’t include your cousin pretending to be one either).
PROTECTING YOUR COPYRIGHT
Ok, so you’ve written your script, but you STILL think someone is gonna pinch your idea. Fair enough… sometimes it happens. In our experience, much less then you think. But it doesn’t hurt to protect yourself. We take out insurance against everything else in our lives: car damages, home, travel, death (all the inevitabilities!), why not a kind of insurance for scripts?
Yes, copyright is automatic, but how do you PROVE that you own the copyright? This is where contention arises. The most common way of proving ownership is to establish the “date of creation” of your work. You do this by registering your work with a third party. Forget sending yourself your work in the post. It’s just altogether less effective.
While in the US, the Writers’ Guild of America facilitate script registrations, our Writers’ Guild is slightly less effective. But fear not, for the UK does have a US equivalent, The Writers’ Copyright Association, UK (www.wcauk.com), whose sole purpose is to protect literary work. They do this all on-line and also offer legal contracts and give away loads of freebies like Final Draft and also The Guerilla Filmmakers’ Movie Blueprint (which I have the honour of having worked on!).
No matter where you are in the world, you can register your work with:
The Writer's Copyright Association, UK – www.wcauk.com
The way it works is like this. You visit the WCA website. You upload your work for a small fee (£25 for five years). You are then sent back a unique serial number that you can apply to the front of your work. The WCA records the date of creation and in case of litigation, can provide evidence to this effect.
This is helpful in that when you place the serial number on the front page of your screenplay, it acts as a visual deterrent to any would be plagiarist, snipping the act of plagiarism in the so called literary bud. They’ll think twice about pinching your brilliant little baby.
Do be aware that the WCA and WGA do not verify the originality of your work. This is for a tribunal or court to decide (if it ever got that far). It’s always good to keep a paper trail of everything you do, and everyone you send your work to. But you cannot and obviously should not register something that infringes any third party. If someone else created it, someone else owns the copyright. This applies to virtually everything – photographs, music, web pages, designs etc. You always have to seek permission from any third party.
Should you register with BOTH the WCA and WGA? If you are planning on sending your work to the States it’s advisable. The WGA has very strict guidelines for writers working in the US and some US options may legally require you to register your work with the WGA. In effect, it is identical to the WCA. Both organizations date and time stamp your work.
You may be interested in adapting a book. Unless the work is in the public domain (public domain is life of author plus 70 years) it is going to be owned by someone. In fact, the author’s estate or beneficiaries may still own every work you think might be in the public domain. If in doubt, check. With clever hunting, one or two phone calls will get you the answer you need.
Your first port of call is to call the publisher and ask who owns the film rights to the work. Often this is something the publisher has negotiated with the author. Either way, they will be able to tell you who to call next, be it the author’s agent… or maybe even the author himself.
If the rights are available, your next step is to “option” the work for a period of time. This is like taking out a short hold lease on the project. You pay a fee for a window of time, say one year, and have the exclusive right to try to make the work into a film. Sometimes with unknown authors, you can get the option for nothing (a nominal contractual fee of £1), but don’t expect to get the latest Nick Hornby book at this price.
Bad news for you. There is no copyright in a name, title, slogan or phrase. So you can’t sue Working Title under the assumption that you own copyright to the “Four Wedding & a Funeral” because you had the idea first. Sorry, pal.
But you may be able to register this as a trademark. The Academy Awards (Oscars) are trademarked, so is Coca-Cola, but most film titles are not. For more information or to register a trademark, visit the Patent office: www.patent.gov.uk
However, you’ll be interested to know that most US Studios register formal copyrights of their work with the Library of Congress. For more information, visit the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which was set up to protect and enforce copyright infringement and illegal piracy of film – www.mpaa.org
Also check out the Library of Congress, where formal copyrights can be registered: http://www.loc.gov/copyright/
Some Final Words
Ok, now you know how copyright all works. Pretty straightforward. But let’s sum up:
Write your script
Register it with the WCA (www.wcauk.com)
Stop worrying and get on with it.
Ever wonder why you haven’t made it yet as a writer? Here’s a key thing to think about: are you stalled in neutral? This is the most common cause. You sit around complaining about the state of the UK film industry instead of actually taking action. Guess what… IT’S NOT GOING TO COME TO YOU!!! YOU have to go to it. Change gears, get into drive. Don’t get stopped by “NO!” You have to work through “no”. Don’t make it mean anything.
Most importantly, you’ve written your one screenplay and sent it out, got loads of rejections and collected letterhead from all the major players (which you’ll no doubt throw back in their face one day). Ask yourself “are you doing everything you can do to get this out?” I mean everything? Who are you on the phone to today? Set yourself specific measurable tasks.
Finally… are you still writing? By the time you’ve read this article, your project is now old news. Want to be a writer? Write something else. And when you’re done with that… get straight on to the next project. Instead of being attached to your work… just be committed.