Screenwriters - learn how to fully protect your creative work and avoid theft by properly copyrighting your script before sending it out. We break down everything you need to know about screenplay copyrights to safeguard your writing career.

Should I Copyright my Screenplay? Everything You Need to Know

If you’ve invested your time, creativity, and heart into writing an original screenplay, you absolutely need to consider registering your copyright.

Copyright is critical for protecting your legal rights as a screenwriter, preventing theft of your intellectual property, and being able to prove ownership if your work is used without permission.

For any newbie or experienced screenwriter wondering “Should I copyright my screenplay?” – the answer is a resounding yes. Here’s what you need to know:

Why You Should Copyright Your Screenplay

As soon as your original screenplay is transformed into a tangible form like a Word document or PDF, it automatically has copyright protection. But there are important reasons to go a step further and formally register that copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office:

  • It provides legal proof of ownership. Copyright registration establishes your ownership over the work if any disputes arise in the future. Your registration serves as a public record and definitive evidence that the screenplay is your creative property.
  • It gives you the ability to sue for infringement. If someone uses or steals parts of your script without permission, copyright registration allows you to file a lawsuit seeking damages. Unregistered works have limited legal recourse.
  • You must register to seek statutory damages. If your copyrighted work is infringed, registration enables you to seek statutory damages up to $150,000 per infraction. For unregistered works, you are only entitled to actual damages like lost profits.
  • It’s required to sell or option your screenplay. No reputable agent, production company, or studio will consider unprotected work. They need to see you have registered copyright as this protects their interests as well.
  • It shows you are serious about your work. Copyright registration demonstrates you understand the legal process and have taken steps to protect your creative work and livelihood as a writer.
  • Peace of mind. Knowing your script is protected under the law will give you the confidence to share it more widely without fear of theft. Copyright is your security blanket.

When Should You Copyright Your Screenplay?

To maximize protection, it’s best to file your copyright registration as early as possible:

  • As soon as it’s written down. The screenplay can be registered with the Copyright Office as soon as it is fixed in a tangible form – it does not need to be a final “production-ready” draft. An early draft will suffice.
  • Before disclosure or distribution. You should register the copyright before sending your script to anyone – agents, managers, producers, studios, actors, or posting online. It prevents claims someone else “stole” your idea.
  • Before film production. Registration should happen before shooting begins, especially if you’ve optioned the script. It strengthens your rights to negotiate credit or compensation if the film moves forward.
  • At each significant rewrite. If you are substantially rewriting and modifying drafts, it doesn’t hurt to re-register at significant milestones. This updates the registered version.
  • Set it and forget it. Once registered, your screenplay is protected for your lifetime plus 70 years. But you can also renew the copyright after the first 28-year term if desired.

How to Copyright a Screenplay

Registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office protects your work on a national level. Here are the key steps:

  • Complete an application – Form PA for motion picture screenplays. This includes title, writer(s), year of creation, etc.
  • Pay the fee – $65 for electronic filing or $85 for paper filing.
  • Deposit copy – Submit 1 complete copy of the script. This can be uploaded digitally.
  • Mail or online submission – Paper applications are mailed with a deposit, and digital applications are filed electronically.
  • Wait for the certificate – Processing takes 1 to 7 months, after which you receive an official registration certificate.

It’s highly recommended to register online through the U.S. Copyright Office’s eCO electronic system for faster processing and instant payment. Online filers also receive priority if legal action becomes necessary.

What Does a Screenplay Copyright Protect?

Copyright covers the creative literary expression in your screenplay, which includes:

  • The actual written text includes all dialogue, scene descriptions, stage directions, and other story elements.
  • All fictional characters that originated in your script. Their names, personalities, backstories, relationships, dialogue, etc.
  • The sequence of events, overall storyline, and plot points.
  • Stage and film directions that convey mood, pacing, and settings.

Copyright does NOT protect:

  • Ideas, concepts or themes. Only the tangible execution is protected.
  • Facts, history or real people depicted.
  • Titles or names on their own. (Titles can be trademarked separately).
  • Scènes à faire – stock elements like common archetypes, generic plot devices.

So in summary, copyright covers the tangible details and creative elements that make your screenplay unique – not broad ideas or commonly used conventions.

Helpful Copyright Tips for Screenwriters

Here are some additional copyright tips to keep in mind:

  • Put a copyright notice (© Your Name, Year) on the title page of your script. While not legally required, this shows you assert copyright.
  • Only send watermarked or locked PDF copies before registration to prevent copying.
  • Consult an entertainment lawyer for any major projects or revisions to ensure continuous coverage.
  • Keep detailed records of drafts and registration in case disputes arise later.
  • Use online tools like the Poor Man’s Copyright to establish a timestamp before registration.
  • Consider Creative Commons licenses or WGA registration for additional protection if openly posting work.
  • Add copyright info and legal disclaimers to any online portfolios, websites, or blogs where you post writing samples or accept submissions.
  • Don’t over-register minor revisions. Copyright still applies to all interim drafts as derivative works.
  • Advise any collaborators to register individually if co-writing a script.
  • Don’t publicly disclose story details before formally registering a copyright.
  • Registration can also provide useful evidence for tax purposes as a freelance writer.

Should You Hire an Entertainment Lawyer?

While registering your screenplay copyright does not require a lawyer, consulting an entertainment attorney is recommended if:

  • Your script is highly marketable or likely to be optioned and sold. They can review and strengthen agreements.
  • You will be pitching to major studios and want someone reviewing your legal interests.
  • You are co-writing and need to outline rights, responsibilities, and royalties upfront.
  • Your work is extremely high-value with commercial viability.
  • You don’t understand parts of the copyright registration process.
  • You need help enforcing your copyrights or pursuing infringement claims.
  • You have questions about additional protections like WGA registration or Creative Commons licenses.

For straightforward copyright registration on your own work, legal counsel likely isn’t essential if you follow the proper steps outlined above. But they provide helpful guidance in navigating the entertainment industry landscape.

Next Steps: Protecting Your Creative Work

Securing federal copyright registration for your screenplay is a critical first step on the path to production. It lays the legal foundation for your script to be optioned, sold, or produced while protecting your creative rights and interests.

Fortunately, the U.S. Copyright Office provides an accessible and affordable registration process for screenwriters at all levels. Taking advantage of online filing for faster processing is recommended.

With your copyright registered, you can have peace of mind sharing your work more freely, knowing you have powerful legal protection against unauthorized use as the sole rights holder. This gives you greater freedom to pursue your screenwriting dreams.

Now that you better understand the importance of copyrighting your screenplay, it’s time to take action. Follow the steps outlined above, enlist an entertainment lawyer if desired, and breathe easier knowing your creative work is protected by federal copyright law.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I legally protect my screenplay?

The best way to legally protect your screenplay is by registering it with the U.S. Copyright Office. This provides national copyright protection and legal recourse if your work is used without permission. You can register online for $65.

How much does it cost to copyright a screenplay?

Registering your screenplay with the U.S. Copyright Office costs $65 for an online application or $85 for a paper application. This one-time fee covers your lifetime plus 70 years.

Who owns the copyright to a screenplay?

The author(s) who created the screenplay own the copyright by default. Rights can be transferred via written agreements. If it’s a work-for-hire, the hiring company holds the copyright.

Should I register my screenplay?

Yes, you should register your screenplay with the Copyright Office before sharing it widely. This protects your rights as the owner if it’s used or sold without your permission.

Can I edit my screenplay after I copyright it?

Yes, you can continue to edit and modify your script after copyright registration. The copyright protects all iterations as derivative works. Major changes may warrant re-registration.

Can a script be stolen?

Unfortunately, scripts can be stolen, which is why copyright registration is so important. It gives legal recourse if someone uses your work without permission. Always register before sharing scripts.

How likely is it to sell a screenplay?

The odds of selling a spec script are very low, less than 1% on average. But proper copyright protection, persistent querying to producers, and a high-quality script give you the best chance.

How much do Netflix screenwriters make?

For Netflix originals, writers typically earn around $30-40k per episode as WGA minimums. Top-tier writers can earn over $100k per episode. Additional residuals bring in more over time.

Do screenwriters get royalties?

Yes, screenwriters receive royalties based on agreements and WGA minimums. This includes residuals from box office, streaming, DVD sales, and other secondary markets over time after the film’s release.

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