Creating a short film takes passion, creativity, and a ton of hard work. As the filmmaker, it’s important to protect that investment by officially registering a copyright for your film.
Copyrighting your short film establishes your legal ownership over the content. It provides you with recourse if someone uses your work without permission down the road. Proper copyright also puts others on notice that you own the exclusive rights.
But how exactly do you go about copyrighting a short film project? This guide will walk you through the key steps every filmmaker should take.
How to Copyright a Short Film
The first step is to register your short film with the U.S. Copyright Office. Here’s an overview of how to do it:
Fill Out the Appropriate Form
For motion pictures and videos, you must submit Form PA. This includes narrative films, documentaries, music videos, advertising content, and more.
On Form PA, you’ll provide key details about your short film including:
- The title of the work
- The year it was completed
- The full names of the authors (typically the producer and director)
- The copyright claimant (usually the production company)
Form PA allows you to register a work that is “in production.” So you can submit it even before your film is fully finished.
Submit a Deposit Copy
Along with the form, you must send a deposit copy of the work itself. For videos and motion pictures, this means submitting:
- A complete copy of the best edition of the work
- On a DVD, CD-ROM, or via upload
If it’s before completion, you can submit part of the work along with details about the expected final content.
Pay the Registration Fee
The current fee for online registration of a copyrightable work is $65. You can pay this by credit card with your online application.
Receive an Official Certificate
Once approved, the Copyright Office will issue a certificate of registration. This official document includes:
- The registration number and effective date of registration
- Your name as the copyright claimant
- The title and nature of the work
On average, it takes around 7 months for a registration certificate to be issued. You don’t need the certificate for protection to start. Your film is under copyright from the moment it’s created in a fixed, tangible form.
Why Register Your Short Film Copyright?
Registering with the Copyright Office is not technically required. But there are important benefits:
- It establishes a public record of your copyright. This serves as proof in case of disputes.
- It allows you to file a copyright infringement lawsuit. Registration is required before you can take legal action.
- You can be awarded statutory damages up to $150,000 per infringement. With just an unregistered copyright, you are only eligible for proven financial damages.
- In case of infringement, registration establishes prima facie evidence of the validity of your copyright.
- It allows you to apply for the DMCA takedown process to remove infringing works online.
For short films especially, going through the registration process is recommended to protect your rights.
Using Copyrighted Material in Your Short Film
Many short films incorporate copyrighted materials like music, footage, and graphics. As the filmmaker, it’s crucial you obtain proper licenses and permissions first.
Using a recognizable song or background music in your short film could put you at risk. The music is almost certainly protected by copyright and publishing rights.
To avoid disputes, you’ll need to obtain synchronization and master use licenses from the rights holders. There are music library services that provide pre-cleared songs at reasonable rates.
Alternatively, you can use music under a Creative Commons license that explicitly allows commercial use. YouTube Audio Library is one free option for CC-licensed music.
Stock Video and Images
Stock footage and stock photography sites make it easy to purchase royalty-free media for use in your short film. Just be sure to follow the license terms, which often limit modifications and redistribution rights.
Some stock sites like Pexels offer completely free media under Creative Commons. This allows broader commercial use with attribution.
Logos and Props
If you plan to show corporate logos or branded products in your film, be cautious. Trademarks are a separate form of IP law, and companies often restrict how others can use their brand assets.
The safest approach is not to show any logos or products unless you get explicit permission from the trademark owner. Avoiding trademarks altogether is less risky for your short film.
Fair Use Limitations
In some cases, you may be able to use limited portions of copyrighted material under the fair use doctrine. Examples include commentary, criticism, news reporting, and parody. Fair use is evaluated based on factors like:
- The purpose and character of your use
- The amount used relative to your work as a whole
- The impact on the commercial value of the original work
- The nature of the copyrighted work
Because fair use is very context-specific, rely on it cautiously for short films. Getting permission is ideal whenever possible.
Putting Copyright Notices in Your Film
Including proper copyright notices in your short film can further deter infringement. Here are tips for adding them effectively:
What to Include in a Copyright Notice
Copyright notices should include these elements:
- The copyright symbol © or the word “Copyright”
- The year of first publication
- The name of the copyright owner (typically you as the filmmaker or your production company)
© 2022 XYZ Films
Where to Put Copyright Notices
Relevant locations to place copyright notices include:
- Opening credits
- End credits
- Packaging for DVD/Blu-ray releases
- Descriptions on streaming platforms like YouTube or Vimeo
The goal is to inform viewers that the content is protected IP. The more prominent, the better.
Notice vs. Registration
A copyright notice alone does not provide as much protection as registration with the Copyright Office. Use copyright notices to supplement official registration.
Fun fact: Prior to 1989, a copyright notice was required on works published in the U.S. This is no longer the case, but notices still offer benefits.
Legal Recourse for Copyright Infringement
If someone uses your short film without authorization, you have legal options to protect your rights. But first, register your film’s copyright if you haven’t yet!
Send a DMCA Takedown Notice
If your film is posted somewhere online without permission, you can have it removed by sending a DMCA takedown notice to the hosting platform.
Provide details about the infringing content and your ownership of the copyright. By law, the provider must expeditiously remove or disable public access to the infringing materials.
Negotiate a Settlement
You can try to negotiate directly with the infringing party first. Offer them the chance to promptly cease their unlawful use of your short film before taking legal action.
File a Copyright Lawsuit
If informal efforts fail, your last resort is to file a copyright lawsuit against the infringers. Note that you must have registered your film’s copyright beforehand in order to sue.
In court, you can recover compensation through actual damages, lost profits, and disgorgement of the defendant’s earnings from the infringement.
If your film was registered before infringement started, you can also pursue statutory damages up to $150,000 per instance without needing to prove financial loss.
Work with a Lawyer
Copyright lawsuits can quickly become complicated and expensive. Consult with an intellectual property attorney to protect your rights in the most effective way.
Securing copyright protection provides filmmakers with critical legal recourse. For short film projects especially, going through the proper steps is important.
To recap, be sure to:
- Register your film with the U.S. Copyright Office
- Only use licensed or public domain content
- Put copyright notices in your film and descriptions
- Register your copyright before taking any legal action
Follow these best practices, and you can confidently protect your short film from unauthorized use. Copyright law shields your valuable time, effort, and creative work.
Now get out there, make an amazing short film, and don’t forget – register that copyright! Protecting your cinematic story is an essential part of the filmmaking process.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much does it cost to copyright a short film?
The current fee to register the copyright for a short film with the U.S. Copyright Office is $65 for an online application. There are no other official fees associated with getting a copyright.
Who owns the copyright to a short film?
The copyright is generally owned by the filmmaker or production company that created the short film. Rights can also be transferred via licensing deals and work-for-hire agreements.
How can I copyright my film?
You can register the copyright for your film by submitting an application, deposit copy, and fee to the U.S. Copyright Office. This establishes your ownership on a federal level. Simply creating the film also automatically gives you a copyright.
Should I copyright my short film script?
Yes, you can and should register the copyright for your short film script separately, in addition to the final filmed work. This provides extra protection for your written creative work before it is turned into a movie.
Do I need an LLC for a short film?
You don’t legally need an LLC to make or release a short film. However, forming an LLC can provide liability protection and tax benefits if you plan to distribute or monetize the short film.
Should I make an LLC for a short film?
Making an LLC for your short film production company or project is recommended if you want business entity protection. Consult an attorney to decide if it makes sense for your specific situation.
Can you make money with a short film?
There are several ways to monetize a short film, including film festival distribution, YouTube monetization, sponsored branded content, licensed screenings, DVD/Blu-ray sales, and online platforms like Vimeo On Demand. Successful short films can generate revenue through these distribution channels.