• Wondering which camera, gear, computer, or software to buy? Ask in our Gear Guide.

copyright How can I protect my screenplay from theft?

I think it was William Goldman who said "If you can think it, 5 other people are already writing it". I've had two scripts in progress that a more suspicious person might have thought were stolen. The first was a feature, about 75 pages in, and loosely based on my Air Force career in South Florida after Vietnam, about a pr*ck F-4 jock (we all knew a few of them). Named "The Ace", I told NOBODY about it while I was writing it (I was still serving and may have mentioned some things about pilots that might prove embarrassing), so I was more than surprised to discoverer a Robert Duvall movie with the same title had been released. And when it was released on HBO as "The Great Santini", I had to admit that, even though it was almost identical to my script, it was PURE coincidence, and that Pat Conroy's story was MUCH MUCH better than anything I could have done. A couple of years later, I wrote a 1 hour pilot (time travel with a twist), with a Bible, half a dozen story lines, and scored an introduction to a show runner for Aaron Spelling. Then I read about a new series starring Scott Bacula and Dean Stockwell called "Quantum Leap", and permanently shelved my baby. It tells me that I'm on the right track with my stories, but I'm a little late leaving the station. Intellectual theft in Hollywood is so rare that I honestly don't worry about it. What concerns me more is someone in a meeting who goes "hey, I have an idea" and pitches something he heard and doesn't even remember where.
 
All true but? It does happen MORE than you think... Not to mention unscrupulous producers who send their underlings to pitchfests and screenwriting workshops to listen to pitches... LOL. I've met 6 people over the years that were hired to listen to pitches and forward the good ones over to the producer that hired them.
 
Last edited:
I have been working on a screenplay the past few months, based on an idea I began to work on last year. I've told two people about my idea (one industry, one non-). Just read last week that a very well known director is working on a concept very similar to mine. While discouraging, I know this happens all the time, so I keep at it. Sometimes things get made, sometimes they never come to pass. While you should protect yourself (as a minimum with a WGA registration), you can't let fear of theft keep you from turning your ideas into screenplays and getting those screenplays out there for people to read.
 
I have been working on a screenplay the past few months, based on an idea I began to work on last year. I've told two people about my idea (one industry, one non-). Just read last week that a very well known director is working on a concept very similar to mine. While discouraging, I know this happens all the time, so I keep at it. Sometimes things get made, sometimes they never come to pass. While you should protect yourself (as a minimum with a WGA registration), you can't let fear of theft keep you from turning your ideas into screenplays and getting those screenplays out there for people to read.
Absolutely true... It's all in the execution anyway. It's not something I personally worry about because I spend MONTHS just working on a concept before I ever sit down to write it... Even IF there's something similar out there? As long as you can get READ? Not a huge deal.
 
Pitches are a whole different story. Ideas aren't copyrightable, and EVERY STORY IMAGINABLE has already been done. Our job is to do the same thing, just differently (and better). Off the top of my head I can only thing of 2 cases where such theft was substantiated, and one (Downhill Racer, starring Robert Redford) was a case where someone heard a story pitched, didn't remember it, but pitched it at a later date. That case was settled amicably. The other was "Coming To America". You can read about that here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buchwald_v._Paramount
 
Equally important reads related to this thread...

Idea Theft: Frivolous Copyright-Lite Claims, or Hollywood Business Model?

Stolen Screenplay Ideas: A Look at Recent Cases

Supreme Court Has Shifted Copyright Risk to Entertainment Studios (Guest Column)

SCREENPLAY COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT CASE HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR SUBMISSION AGREEMENTS

When California Dreamin' Becomes a Hollywood Nightmare; Copyright Infringement and the Motion Picture Screenplay: Toward an Improved
Framework


Bottom line (in my humble opinion) is to cite a quote by Steve Martin... BE SO GOOD THEY CAN'T IGNORE YOU. It's all in the execution. A great high concept idea without an equal or higher execution is simply asking for your idea to be stolen. Ideas are stolen everyday in this business.
 
Last edited:
Ever read "Steal Like an Artist"?

If someone takes your idea, and makes it better.... Who cares whose idea it was? Pay going where pay is due, sure... But there are skills involved with pitching and actually making films for an audience, as opposed to just generating creative ideas.

I like to think my ideas are extremely original, but at the end of the day everything I've made has spawned from seeing/hearing/watching something else.... Even as a wee babe. We are all grouped together within the same conscious network.

Usually those skills net way more in the way of profit than the creativity of the originator. Its just how life works in the world of ideas.

But, that's just my take on the whole thing. I haven't been fully slighted or swindled yet... So I'm sure I would change my tune once it happens.
 
Last edited:

indietalk

IndieTalk Founder
Staff Member
Admin
Ideas aren't copyrightable
Just because the copyright office does not accept ideas, that does not give the green light to steal them. Theft is theft and can be proven especially when the concept is highly unique. In other words no you do not sue over the idea, you sue over the finished work (film, etc.) based on your idea, if it was stolen. Yes, that is theft.
 
Ever read "Steal Like an Artist"?

If someone takes your idea, and makes it better.... Who cares whose idea it was? Pay going where pay is due, sure... But there are skills involved with pitching and actually making films for an audience, as opposed to just generating creative ideas.

I like to think my ideas are extremely original, but at the end of the day everything I've made has spawned from seeing/hearing/watching something else.... Even as a wee babe. We are all grouped together within the same conscious network.

Usually those skills net way more in the way of profit than the creativity of the originator. Its just how life works in the world of ideas.

But, that's just my take on the whole thing. I haven't been fully slighted or swindled yet... So I'm sure I would change my tune once it happens.
Well if they didn't KNOW about MY IDEA prior to making it better? I could care less... LOL. But of course, that means they've stolen nothing. If you're writing a movie and have already sold the script and performing a polish? No big deal. Film is collaboration first and foremost so of course, you're going to take any of the plethora of new ideas others you're now working with are throwing at you -- assuming they are GOOD IDEAS (usually NOTES) -- and make the script as good as it can possibly be. That's the business.

But if you pitch someone an idea and they pass on reading the script and then go on to hire a writer to develop a script from THAT idea? That's stealing as far as I'm concerned. While it's certainly true you cannot sue for copyright infringement based on an IDEA, you can in fact write that idea down... Flesh it out fairly well -- for instance, as a screenwriter, we often leave ONE-SHEETS after pitching to a studio or producer. Those one sheets are really nothing more than an executed IDEA. A premise with some rather vague plot points fleshed in. If a studio or producer takes that idea or even pieces of that idea and it finds its way into another film? It's theft.

Don't think this doesn't happen... LOL. In this business? Happens way more than you would think. The IDEA that everything has already been written is BS. I have a script I'm working on right now that I guarantee has never been written. The concept is that original. I've pitched it ONLY to a few producers and people in the business that I trust -- no more than a handful -- and everyone wants to be the first to read it. Will my execution live up to the concept I've created? Jesus... I HOPE SO but there's no way to know if people in the business are going to LIKE my EXECUTION. So I have to be prepared that once I've sent the script out and it's done the ROUNDS, HOPE somebody is going to be interested. If nobody is? Trust me when I tell you that someone will take this concept and attempt their own execution of it. IT happens, PLAIN and SIMPLE especially when the idea is truly original.

Most ideas and specs are simply not original. They are usually derived from one or more other films we've already seen and while well-executed? We've seen it before and therefore, the market could care less most of the time unless we're talking direct to video but even those days are just about gone. It's just the way it is and if you want to play in the park with all the other kids? This is the park you have to play in. If an idea is not that original? Not a huge deal but truly original ideas? You have to be careful and document or create a log of everyone that's had access to the script.

*NOTE: I also wanted to add that more and more you'll read about a spec in the trades that got sold but there is NO LOGLINE mentioned. Why? Because nobody wants to risk that it get STOLEN. If you give me a great concept and I can really SEE it? I can knock that script out in less than a month. LOL. That's why we rarely see loglines of sold spec scripts anymore. THEFT, plain and simple.
 
Last edited:
Hello.

Some basics.

First of all, there is a common-law copyright, in the sense that, once you write a novel of lovers from rival groups, that story would be copyrighted. But you cannot copyright an idea, so, if you did write that screenplay, Shakespeare or the producers of West Side Story cannot sue you for copyright infringement. With all this in mind, you should speak to an intellectual property lawyer, and he will charge you one hour of his time, after which you will have a solid idea.

Hope it helps.
 
Top