Q: I’ve written the next Casablanca. Maybe I’m paranoid but I’m convinced someone’s going to steal my script and make my movie without me. My friend tells me that I can’t protect it unless I’ve “copyrighted” it. That sounds true; is it?
– Sleepless in Seattle
A: Sleepless, please don’t forget the golden rule your momma used to tell you all the time: “Don’t listen to your friends; only trust lawyers.” Your friend may have a great Facebook page, but his status should read “…is giving crappy legal advice.” [author note: why does this Facebook joke feel like something a dad would do in front of his kid in a pathetic attempt to look “with it?”]
You and your friend are not alone. People often think that one must take certain steps with the Copyright Office in order to “copyright” a script, painting, film, or other material that they’ve created. This is not the case. According to our laws, copyrights are conferred upon “original works of authorship” that are “fixed in a tangible form of expression.” In English, this means that in order for something to be afforded copyright protection it only needs to satisfy the following requirements:
1. Your material must have some level of originality. This is an easy bar to pass. The directions aspect of a recipe, while dry and boring, likely would be considered an original work of authorship, due to the fact that the author had to make choices as to how to describe the cooking steps. You couldn’t copy that verbatim without violating the author’s rights. On the other hand, the list of ingredients and their amounts would not qualify for copyright protection because no originality (read: creativity) was used in expressing that list.
2. Your material must be “fixed” in some “tangible” form. In other words, you may be some sort of savant who keeps your entire script in your head without ever writing it. If so, that script has yet to qualify for copyright protection. The second you sit down at the Coffee Bean and bang that sucker on your Mac laptop, it is afforded copyright protection.
One very important related note that goes to another common misconception: copyright law does not protect ideas, it only protects the actual tangible expression of those ideas. For example, you and I may have the same general idea for a movie. If we both write scripts that follow the same idea but have different characters, scenes, dialogue, etc., neither of us would likely have a claim against the other. This is why Deep Impact and Armageddon could be released at basically the same time even though they were (and still are) both terrible movies about meteors about to smash into Earth [ed. note: one of them was a comet, Jesse!]. While the idea was the same for both movies, each script had unique characters, scenes, and storylines so one could not claim copyright infringement by the other. If, on the other hand,Deep Impact contained a scene in which Robert “Captain Fish Tanner” Duvall got romantic with a lady friend using a box of Animal Crackers, the rights holders in Armageddon would likely have had a claim for copyright infringement because it then would have been copying more than just the overall idea for the movie; it would have been copying a unique, original, and vomit-inducing scene.
This was a long winded way of telling you that you indeed have rights in your script even though you have yet to take any steps to formally register it. That being said, we would always recommend registering a script because it does give you some important advantages and additional protections if someone was to copy your work: it allows you to sue in federal court, it may give you certain advantages in such litigation (i.e., a presumption that your claimed copyright is valid) and it may allow you to win additional damages (i.e., statutory damages and attorney’s fees).
If you want more information, the government is shockingly helpful regarding copyrights.
If you’re interested in registering your script, you can do it here.
This blog was originally published as part of Legal Ease, Film Independent’s weekly column on legal matters pertaining to the entertainment industry. To see other LEGAL EASE columns please click here.