Finally, you have completed your script. After countless drafts, workshops, and merciless editing sessions, you now have a correctly formatted, workable manuscript. Of course, even though there are multiple steps in completing this process, this was only phase one. While writing for yourself is a sometimes enjoyable, cathartic outlet, presumably, you’re in this to make money, while bestowing your art (notice the priorities, here) upon the world.
So what comes next? It is time to protect your completed manuscript before you get ready to sell it or submit it to writing competitions. As a serious writer, you need to protect your original work. It seems now more than ever people are disregarding copyright laws; this of course has coincided with the internet age, where it’s quite common to see somebody using copyrighted music for their own YouTube videos, as well as footage that probably has been altered without the owner’s permission. This means that your original script, pitch, or treatment could be in danger as well.
One of the most famous instances of a writer filing a lawsuit against a studio for breach of contract regarding an original idea was Art Buchwald vs. Paramount in 1990. Buchwald had pitched the treatment of what eventually became “Coming to America” to Jeffrey Katzenberg at Paramount in 1982, indicating it would be a good starring vehicle for Eddie Murphy, who was under contract to the studio at the time.
Paramount abandoned the project, and two years later, Warner Bros. optioned Buchwald’s treatment. When Paramount began developing the movie again, Warner Bros. dropped it. The movie was released in 1988 by Paramount, giving sole story credit to Murphy, and Buchwald filed suit, eventually winning.
Keep a detailed log of all meetings, calls, and queries you’ve sent. This means keeping track of who you’ve talked to and what was said. This will help if there are any legal questions (like if somebody tries to steal your ideas) and it will also help you keep a record of contacts you’ve made. Never hesitate to contact an attorney.
Make sure your work is copyrighted. In “The Screenwriter’s Bible,” David Trottier notes the things you can’t copyright as your own: ideas, historical facts, plots, titles, phrases, and anything not written down. You can, however, protect your original expressions of those things in your script.
Under current copyright law, you own the rights to your work as you are writing it. While you don’t have to, you can contact the U.S. Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov) in Washington, D.C. While somebody else may end up owning the copyright to your script once you’ve sold it, it might be good practice to copyright it yourself when you begin to circulate it.
Many writers will protect their work by way of the poor man’s copyright. This entails putting the script in an envelope, sealing it and sending it to yourself via registered mail. Don’t open it—keep it sealed for any legal battles later.
Registering with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) means that you are establishing yourself as the originator of your script. While it is not the same as having a U.S. copyright, most writers register with the Guild. It creates valid evidence in legal disputes. It also offers a reference list for reputable agents, other writers, and legitimate studios.
WGA operates two offices, one in New York and one in L.A. The two territories are divided by the Mississippi River. To register your script, treatment, or synopsis, send $20 (WGA, west, and they will hold it for five years) or $22 (WGA, east, and they will hold it for ten years) along with your completed work. You can renew your registration, and even register different drafts along with the finished script. Registering a treatment or synopsis is smart if you’re going to immediately present the idea to others.
The WGA also provides the following services: registration of your script, treatment, or synopsis for a period of five to ten years, pre negotiated contracts if you sign with a producer or studio that is signatory to the WGA or acquire an agent that is signatory to the WGA, arbitration in matters regarding credits or payment issues, listing of agencies that are signatory to the WGA, a library where you can read scripts, and information about who represents certain writers. This is a good reference point when you’re looking for an agent. To find out what other services the WGA offers, visit www.wga.org
If you are collaborating with a partner, be sure to define your roles. If the partnership unravels later, there could be problems such as who did what specifically. Always have a written agreement, especially if the collaboration started out as a personal relationship. According to Trottier, the agreement should cover the following points: exactly what each person will contribute in terms of time and content, who gets top writing credit, and what happens if somebody drops out or doesn’t perform.
A professional writer, or least anybody with the intention of becoming a professional writer, should always be willing to sign a contract. This not only shows good faith on both parts, but it also shows that each one of you is serious about your goal.
When collaborating as partners, you and your co-writer’s name will be joined by an ampersand–not the word “and.” The word “and” indicates the two writers did not work together. This issue recently came up with the screenplay for “Up in the Air.” Sheldon Turner originally wrote a draft and sold it to Dreamworks in 2003. The book’s film rights were purchased by Ivan Reitman, father of Jason Reitman (who went on to direct the film), and the elder Reitman then commissioned Nicholas and Ted Griffin to write a script. They kept some elements of Turner’s original script in their draft, which also wound up in Jason Reitman’s version of the screenplay as well. Reitman sought sole writing credit (claiming that he had never read Turner’s script). The WGA ruled that Turner should retain co-writing credit.
The Bottom Line
While stealing an idea may happen, ultimately, your finished script may be your greatest asset. An idea, or a one sentence pitch, is one thing. But your completed script, with fleshed out characters, means that you have gone through this pain-staking process.
If the script is good enough, then a producer is just as likely to pay you, the first time screenwriter, rather than go through the trouble of giving it to a working screenwriter (at a much higher rate, presumably) to work the script up.
Segments of this article can be found in “The Screenwriter’s Bible” by David Trottier