By Tennell Lockett
Some time ago, a potential client approached me with a common problem. Someone had stolen, well, allegedly stolen, his screenplay and had translated it into a popular, critically-acclaimed feature film. As with many similar cases, the screenplay was not stolen like jewels might be stolen by a jewel thief. That is to say, such thefts are rarely as dramatic as might be envisioned. No sneaky midnight burglar. No oil painting hiding a wall-mounted family safe. No safe-cracking techniques using stethoscope and white glove. No thief making off in the night with a million dollar screenplay. What actually happened was far more pedestrian. This individual had casually shared his screenplay with a number of industry actors during a few discussions and some years later an A-rated major motion picture debuted with strikingly similar themes, characters and storylines.
As the individual continued the story, a single thought ran through my mind: man, I wish he had come to speak with me years ago. Had he spoken with me much earlier, I would have given him some very simple advice that possibly could have saved him a lot of heartache. Below are a few thoughts that you will want to consider before having any discussions or making any deals concerning your screenplay.
First, you want to “hardwire” protection into your screenplay or script. By that I mean, you want to include as many original, creative and fresh elements into your work as possible. The protections directed to this area of the law are constructed to protect expression, not ideas. Consequently, you want to include a large number of memorable and colorful quotes, detailed descriptions of original scene settings, creative or unconventional dialogues and plot twists, and other creative literary elements of this nature. If you disclose a firefighter screenplay to hypothetical producer James Hollywood, you will have very little protection simply by virtue of Mr. Hollywood’s subsequent production of a movie about a firefighter. You will, however, have a much stronger position if Mr. Hollywood’s movie includes creative elements that are common with those appearing in your screenplay.
Second, be sure to register your work. I strongly recommend getting a federal copyright registration for any screenplay or script that you believe to be worth sharing with any third-party. Information about acquiring appropriate copyright protection can be found at www.uspto.gov . In addition, there are other registration or date-authenticating services that you will want to consider in the case of screenplays or scripts. For example, it is typically advisable to register you screenplay with the Writers Guild of America. Submissions may be registered online at www.wgawregistry.org.
Third, use appropriate confidentiality and/or nondisclosure agreements with any third-parties prior to disclosing your screen play.
Fourth, use common sense. Trust your natural reservations. If you do not understand something, do not do it. Too often, writers are pressured into disclosing content they are not really comfortable with disclosing. In addition, I strongly discourage unprotected mass screenplay mailings. I may be more cynical than most but, in my view, the practice of mass mailing is generally dangerous in just about every field in which screenplays are valued. I also have a similar distrust of verbal agreements in such industries. On verbal agreements here, I have two maxims, the second of which governs the first: 1) Unless you have absolute trust with whom you are dealing, get it in writing. 2) Trust no one absolutely. If there is ever a question, trust your instincts.