A black and white photo shows an antique brass key unlocking a padlock fastened tightly around a stack of classic screenplay pages and a feather quill pen, lit dramatically in shadows.

How to Copyright Your Screenplay in 5 Steps | Official Guide for Screenwriters

If you just finished writing a film script or TV pilot, congratulations! As a screenwriter, you’ve likely invested substantial time crafting believable characters, riveting dialogue, and a compelling storyline set in the perfect locations.

But before you start pitching your masterpiece to anyone in Hollywood, it’s imperative you take steps to protect your creative work first.

While coming up with idea concepts themselves can’t be copyrighted, the creative expression displayed throughout your screenplay can and should be protected under copyright law the moment it’s tangibly expressed in a fixed format. This keeps others from capitalizing on your imaginative plots, innovative formats, or unique writing style.

However – simply registering your screenplay copyright establishes your ownership as the writer. This guide will walk you through the entire process from start to finish, acting as an invaluable resource for new screenwriters and seasoned veterans alike.

Let’s explore what copyright protects, dive into the five essential steps for copyrighting scripts, and ensure your creative visions make it safely from the fictional page to the big screens without getting stolen.

What Does a Screenplay Copyright Protect?

Before jumping into the registration process, it helps to understand precisely what copyrighting your script actually protects under the law.

In the United States, screenplays and other literary works are considered intellectual property – meaning they receive legal copyright protections as soon as the first tangible expression is created, such as typing the work into a document.

Specifically regarding motion picture screenplays and teleplays, copyright covers the following creative elements:

  • Plot details, storyline progression, scene narratives
  • Fictional characters, character dialogues
  • Details like stage directions, action descriptions
  • Creative layouts, formats, title page designs
  • Stage, set, and location details are described visually

Notably, copyright does not protect overarching ideas, concepts, or facts conveyed throughout a screenplay – only the tangible expression of those ideas. For example, while a film genre itself like “action” or “romance” can’t be copyrighted, the unique storyline and script that brings an action or romance movie to life receive full protection.

This distinction is important for screenwriters to understand what copyright truly safeguards compared to the actual ideas that can still be “ripped off” freely without legal consequences in entertainment.

However, properly establishing your ownership rights with registered copyright provides substantial advantages, acting as both a preventative measure as well as an instrument required before pursuing infringement lawsuits.

5 Steps to Copyright Your Screenplay:

Now that we’ve covered the basics of what copyright entails regarding scripts, let’s explore the five essential steps required to secure official registered copyright from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Step 1: Prepare Your Screenplay Materials

While this first step may seem obvious, properly preparing your script ahead of registration dramatically smooths the entire process.

Here are three keys for effective preparation of your screenplay documentation:

Format Your Script Consistently

Use proper screenwriting format consistently throughout your script. This includes:

  • One-inch scene margins all around
  • Numbers scenes sequentially from beginning to end
  • Dialogue names centered above character dialogue
  • Parenthetical stage directions right aligned
  • Consistent spacing between elements

Follow industry-standard screenplay writing formats detailed in resources like ScreenplayTemplates.com to make your script aesthetically clean and professional.

Create a Title Page

The script title page should include important copyright information like:

  • Your full name and contact information
  • Date completed
  • The full script name or working title
  • Copyright registration notifications like “Registered WGA” or “Copyright 2024 Full Name”

Make a Clean Copy

Only submit a clean copy without any handwritten notes or corrections obscuring the text for copyright registration. Both digital and hard copy script deposits require clean, easy-to-read versions.

Step 2: Register Your Screenplay Copyright

With your script formatted correctly, you next officially register your screenplay for copyright protection through the U.S. Copyright Office.

The most efficient registration method is conveniently completing the process online through the Copyright Office’s electronic registration system.

Online registration requires three key items in order to successfully submit the application:

Completed Application

You must thoroughly complete the online application including all relevant details regarding identification of the work for copyright like title, year completed, etc.

Per the specifications you indicate on the application, you must also properly prepare digital or hard copy deposits in the next steps.

Registration Fee

A non-refundable registration fee is required based on the work – typically ranging from $45 to $65 for motion picture or screenplay registration.

Fees must be paid directly on the Copyright Office website via credit card or ACH payment during the online application process.

Deposit Copy

In addition to the online application and fee, a deposit copy of your work must also be submitted either digitally or through physical mail. More details on fulfilling the deposit requirement are covered in Step 3.

Once the online registration application is submitted and approved, you will receive an official email confirmation including your registration number – typically within 1-2 days if submitting electronically.

Actual processing of your deposit copy and issuance of a registration certificate takes longer at 3-6 months. But rest assured your copyright is valid from the registration approval date!

Step 3: Deposit a Copy with the Library of Congress

An often overlooked but critical component to copyright registration is fulfilling what’s known as the “deposit requirement” – essentially archiving a copy of your work with the U.S. Library of Congress for preservation and record keeping.

You must deposit either a physical hard copy or a digital e-copy of your screenplay to complete the copyright process after initial application approval.

Options for Depositing Registered Works

The Library of Congress accepts the following formats:

Hard Copy Deposits

For paper manuscript deposits, you must submit:

  • One complete copy of the entire screenplay
  • Page-bound securely together, not loose pages
  • Legible text size equivalent to at least 12 point Times New Roman font
  • Clear black text on white paper stock

You can mail the bound print copy to the address specified during registration – must be post-marked no later than 1 month after applying or risk abandoning registration.

Digital Deposits

For digital deposits, you can submit:

  • PDF copy
  • Standard word processing like Microsoft Word documents
  • Rich Text Format (.RTF files)
  • Text file with (.TXT extension)

Digital files must also follow formatting conventions like:

  • Minimum text size being equivalent 12 point font
  • Pages sequentially numbered
  • Legible image quality with clear text resolution
  • File sizes are typically limited between 400 KB – 800 MB

Ideally, opt for PDF to prevent formatting changes once digitally archived.

You simply upload digital deposit files during the online registration process directly to the electronic system.

Reduced Risk of Theft

Once deposited, copies of works are stored in the Library of Congress and only made accessible again with special request – for example, when verifying registered copyright details with permission. This considerably reduces risk of full scripts being accessed and stolen after fulfilling requirements.

Follow specified guidelines carefully regarding deposit formats to avoid rejected applications and unnecessary delays finalizing registration.

Step 4: Receive Your Registration Certificate

Within 3-6 months after successfully completing prior steps, you will receive an official registration certificate from the U.S. Copyright Office issued in your name.

This certificate includes important details like:

  • Your name as claimant to copyright ownership
  • Title of registered work
  • Certificate registration number and date of approval
  • Authorship facts like year creation was completed

Keep this certificate safe along with copies of your registered screenplay. It acts as legal evidence verifying essential facts regarding your established copyright protections.

What Can You Do with a Registered Copyright?

With an official registration certificate and a fulfilled deposit on record, copyright owners like screenwriters gain important abilities when it comes to their creative works – both offensively and defensively.

Defensively, registration establishes undeniable evidence you own the copyright interests in a disputed legal proceeding.

Offensively, copyright registration permits filing infringement lawsuits in federal court seeking damages against culprits – plus attaining specific legal remedies only accessible after completing the registration process, like:

  • Statutory damages – Specifies monetary relief amounts based on the severity of offenses proven in court, eliminating the need to show concrete financial losses.
  • Attorney’s fees recovery – Winning plaintiffs can recover full legal costs related to pursuing copyright lawsuits.
  • Power to stop distribution – Courts can grant injunctions halting infringing activity as it damages creativity incentives moving forward.

In essence, copyright registration creates the ultimate screenwriter’s insurance policy giving you recourse options far beyond basic copyright’s automatic protections.

Renewing Screenplay Copyright

While copyright protection lasts your entire life plus 70 years, you must renew registrations after 28 years to retain those full legal advantages we just covered.

Around years 26-27, you can complete the renewal process extending protections on registered works for another 67 years. Talk about longevity!

This keeps your screenplays safely securing your creative rights – allowing you to confidently shop scripts, sign option agreements, or directly sell your written works knowing they are legally protected for nearly an entire century after original creation.

Additional Screenplay Protections – Register with the WGA

Beyond registering copyright, aspiring screenwriters should also consider registering scripts with the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA).

While optional, the WGA registry further establishes your proof of ownership – adding an additional layer of security ensuring you get proper writing credits and compensation if a script later gets picked up for production.

The WGA registration process is straightforward:

  • Submit 2 print copies of your script
  • Pay small processing fee around $20
  • Provide contact info and short background questionnaire

In as little as 6 weeks, you will then receive written confirmation from the WGA verifying your script has been officially registered in their database – accessible to production companies seeking new films or shows.

This gets your script circulating directly among Hollywood decision-makers and acts as insurance for proper attribution down the road. Learn more on the WGA site here regarding membership eligibility and typical script registration turnaround times.

Protect Your Creative Visions Before Pitching

We hope this guide has broken down exactly how straightforward completing copyright registration truly is – while emphasizing why taking proactive measures to protect screenplays is so important before shopping scripts around potentially unscrupulous characters.

Remember, ideas themselves aren’t owned under copyright law. Telling a casual contact about a film concept doesn’t automatically give them rights or prevent them from writing their own take without repercussion.

This is precisely why formally registering the tangible expression within your script itself is vital – establishing your ownership regarding specific dialogue, characters, scenes, and settings plus legally defending against closely similar competing works.

With key takeaways like:

  • What elements copyright protects
  • Five Steps Registering Your Script
  • Advantages registration offers
  • Maintaining protections long-term

You now have the knowledge to safely turn screenwriting passion projects or creative calling cards into protected properties – allowing your distinctive voice and vision to potentially influence broader audiences exactly as you imagined.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who owns the copyright to a screenplay?

The author or creator of an original screenplay automatically owns the copyright by default. However, registering the copyright formally establishes legal proof of this ownership. Writers can also transfer rights by selling scripts or signing agreements giving production companies certain licensing rights.

How do you get rights to write a screenplay?

You don’t need explicit rights or permissions to write a fictional screenplay. Any writer can create their own stories and scripts featuring original characters and settings without obtaining rights first. Copyright protections apply automatically. The only exception would be writing a script based on another existing work, like a book adaption, which would require acquiring proper rights.

How long does it take to copyright a screenplay?

Initial copyright registration approval takes roughly 1-2 days to submit electronically. You’ll receive a registration confirmation email and number. Full processing of hard copy or digital script deposits along with issuing an official registration certificate takes approximately 3-6 months.

How much does it cost to get a screenplay copyrighted?

Copyright registration fees for motion pictures and screenplays range between $45-$65 for submitting online, along with postal expenses if submitting physical deposit copies. Additional costs for registering with the WGA run around $20. The total budget is approximately $100 to have sufficient peace of mind.

Do I need to copyright my screenplay?

While not legally required, registering copyright establishes undeniable proof you own the work. This gives critical abilities to defend rights in infringement disputes plus unlock specific legal remedies only accessible for registered works. It also verifies the authorship of shopping scripts to producers. Having the registered certificate provides substantial advantages and protections recommended for all screenwriters before sharing or pitching scripts.

Do you need to patent a screenplay?

No, screenplays specifically do not need patents. Patents cover functional inventions and technology innovations whereas copyright protects creative literary works and expressions like scripts, books, or songs. Trademark registration may benefit script titles in some cases.

How do I protect my script from being stolen?

Key protections include registering federal copyright establishing legal ownership, only sharing ideas and details with reputable production company contacts, requiring NDAs before disclosing full scripts, and registering additionally with the WGA to supplement copyright registration in industry-specific databases.

How hard is it to sell a screenplay?

Selling specs scripts with no existing connections in Hollywood can be very difficult and competitive. However, securing a credible producer, attaching talent, participating in respected competitions, or financing smaller independent films can greatly increase sales viability. Quality scripts fitting proven genres also fare better. With dedication and leveraging relationships, selling is possible.

How much can I sell my first screenplay for?

As an unknown first-time screenwriter, realistically expect to earn between $5,000 to $15,000 selling your first feature film script to independent production houses. Extremely well-written genre scripts or unique concepts could potentially secure deals around $30,000-$50,000. Top prices above six figures go to established writers with representation and credits. Manage expectations appropriately.

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