Don't Steal My Brilliant Work!

How to Protect your screenplay?

I get this question a lot. Some writers are deathly afraid of someone stealing their idea.
And all they’re doing these days is pointing to the TV show Empire. There seems to be no end to the number of people who are claiming it was their idea.

The number of times work has actually been stolen is not something  anyone can quantify, but I suspect it hasn’t happened nearly as many times as urban myths have led us to believe.

My advice to you, don’t get paranoid, get informed.

I’m not a lawyer, so come back at me with some he said/she said nonsense :-)

I’m a writer, I get it. I don’t want anybody ripping off my hard work either.

What can we do to protect ourselves?

First, your idea, must be in a fixed form. That means it has to be written down.

"original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible form of expression."


It can’t be something in your head, some idea you told someone at a party or an idea you pitched in an elevator, it’s gotta be written down or typed somewhere.

Next, you’ll be excited to know, that the minute you write it down, technically you own it, that is of course assuming what you’ve written down is your original work.
If you just write down the words from the Star Wars script, that don’t count Obe Wan.

You wrote your screenplay - now what?
There are two widely known options for registering your script, there are some other minor ones, I’m not even gonna bother with them. Your options are:

US Library of Congress (Copyright Office)
Writers Guild of America

US copyright lasts the author’s life plus 70 years, costs $35, entitles a you to sue for damages and to win attorney’s fees, should the court settle in your favor.

Writer’s Guild of America does not entitle you to sue.

The Writers Guild (WGA) has 2 branches WGA West and WGA East.

WGA registration lasts 5 years, costs $10 for members, $20 for nonmembers on the west coast, and $25 for nonmembers the east coast (students with ID: $17 through WGAe).
WGA registration mostly benefits it’s members. Providing the ability to object to a proposed film credit, which is settled in arbitration by other WGA members.

If I had to choose one, and I do, I always go with US copyright. The ability to win statutory damages and attorney fees, makes US copyright worth it. I don’t bother with WGA.

Best part, you can do it online.

I've done this with all my screenplays, and another cool thing, I made a mistake on one of my submissions and I got an email from customer service telling me what my error was and how I could fix it. That's right, I got an email from the GOVERNMENT. Who says our tax dollars are wasted?

Other things to do, for peace of mind.

  • Once you’ve registered, start keeping a detailed log of where you send your screenplays.
  • Email is of course best, because it keeps records of date and time.
  • Any website you list your script like Blacklist or Inktip keep tabs on who is downloading it, these websites are very good at helping you keep track.
  • Any screenplay contests you enter, keep detailed logs of those.
  • Producers that request your script, have full contact information before you send your stuff.

Now here’s one thing I want to add, there have been occasions where I have been asked to sign an NDA, Non-Disclosure Agreement. Even when I’m doing a consultation or I’m evaluating a script for possible production, I’ve been asked to sign an NDA. I’ve always done it. Because it means NOTHING!

Now I may get some pushback on this, so hear me out.

NDA’s, unless you are writing the script for Spider Man part 8, or Star Wars part 12 and a studio really wants to keep a lid on their project, NDA’s are useless.
NDA’s come almost exclusively from new writers.
In most situations asking someone to sign a NDA makes you look like an amateur.

I’m only speaking truth here.

When you require someone to sign an NDA for just a read, it’s my experience that show’s how little you know about the business.  
I’ve been asked to sign NDA’s for short films. RIDICULOUS!
The reason most NDA's don’t work is because most of them, at least the one’s I’ve seen, don’t affix damages.  It doesn’t say what will happen to you if you blab.
What’s it gonna cost me if I disclose?
If a big studio wants you to sign an NDA, you can bet your house that they’ve assigned a monetary figure to you disclosing.
If an NDA came to me with damages affixed, guess what, I’m not signing. Most people I’ve met would not sign either and that writer’s script would not be read.

In order to get yourself known as a competent talented writer, you have to share your work.
You are a capable creative artist who is going to usher many ideas into the world
If you’re hanging on to one idea as your make or break, and you need an NDA to protect you, maybe this isn’t the thing you should be doing.

We writers must take that leap of faith that all creative artists must take if they want their work to be seen. It’s just the way it is.
And if you believe nothing else, believe that It takes more work to steal your story and try to get away with it than it does to just buy it from you.

Take issue with this concept - I’m happy to hear it -

Write On, Write On