Imagine a scenario like this… You’ve spent months, if not, years working on a screenplay. You’ve done all of the work, put your blood, sweat, and tears into this one project. The result? It’s finally completed! Every good writer has that instinct in their gut that tells them, “You’ve done enough, there’s nothing left to do… Let’s send it out into the world.” So, you begin shopping the screenplay around, and that’s when it happens! You finally get that call! A producer is interested in your project and wants to set up a meeting! Don’t panic! Maybe panic! No, don’t panic!
Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? Your whole project could come to life, and they might even keep you on the project! Maybe they’ll want to buy it instead! It almost doesn’t matter at that moment! So, you take the meeting, and it seems to go well until you don’t get that call back. You think to yourself that maybe they’re busy… They’re not busy… They’re never going to call back. You begin shopping the screenplay again, and that’s when you see it. A trailer for YOUR PROJECT! Doesn’t the producer look familiar?
Unfortunately, this has happened more than once. At that point, there’s really nothing that you can do about it. However, that’s not to say that there’s nothing you ever could have done about it. There are ways to be protected, and you can (and should) be using all of them! Here’s what they are:
I know it sounds obvious and easy… That’s because it is. Copyrights are generally very inexpensive if you do them yourself. Third party legal companies may try to do them for you for a fee. It’s cheaper not to do that. The only thing they’re going to do for an extra $100 of your money plus the government fees, is go on copyright.gov and go fill the form out themselves. Don’t be lazy! There are videos all over YouTube on how to do this!
The Writer’s Guild of America is a union. They’re THE union. They’re used as a resource to prevent stuff like this from happening. Their whole goal in business is to protect screenwriters. As of this article, you can register any screenplay on their website for free! Of course, this isn’t as powerful in a court of law as having a copyright, but again, they’re a union. It definitely helps!
This should be a given! Any reputable producer or company that is willing to sink investment money into your project will do this anyway. If anything, it’s going to show initiative. They are not going to trust just any reader though. You should be going through a reputable company (Like Script Screener) because that is who they would use AND TRUST. This isn’t just a shameless self promotion though! There’s a second purpose for this. When you run a screenplay through a coverage company a transaction happens. When a transaction happens, a receipt is given. This means you now have a paper trail, and a witness that the project belongs to you! Afterall, what type of case would you have without a witness?
Bonus: Utilize Non Disclosure Agreements
I’m sure you’ve heard this before. The previous three actions will help you in a court of law. This will help prevent your screenplay from being stolen to begin with! You have to keep in mind that this is a business. You shouldn’t mind paying some money to bring your work to a proper lawyer who will draw up a custom agreement! Of course, there are some on the internet that will work, and you can get them for free. However, the risk of them not being relevant can severely hurt you in the long run. It’s always better to be safe!
Of course, there will always be bad people. People will always try to steal screenplays for one reason or another. The more talented you become, the more cautious you’ll need to be! However, most people have good intentions and wouldn’t steal anything at all. With that being said, if someone does try to steal your work, you’ll have a government document stating that you own the project, a union document stating that you own the project, a company verifying that you own the document with a paper trail to prove they’re being truthful, and a legally binding agreement (please have them sign it!) saying they are aware that they are not allowed to disclose the project’s information. If that doesn’t hold up in court, what will?