This article gives some helpful information on protecting your work, what that means, and what that doesn’t mean. It also makes it clear why you really shouldn’t worry about your ideas being stolen:
You can not copyright or protect– in any way– your ideas.
Ideas are not copyright-able. Only the execution of an idea is copyright-able.
So… let’s say you have an idea for a TV show about a boy who befriends a lost chupacabra. You do NOT own that idea. A TV company, a fellow writer, or your best friend could all write their own movies about boys befriending lost chupacabras… and you would (probably) have NO LEGITIMATE CLAIM they stole your idea.
Now, if you’d already written a script or treatment… and you could prove that they stole your plot, characters, lines of dialogue… you might have a case. But the idea itself—”boy befriends lost chupacabra”—is not yours. Even if you discussed it with people… you DO NOT OWN THE IDEA. You own only your execution.
Now… can you protect your “execution,” your script or treatment? Possibly.
But here’s another thing to understand…
Obtaining a copyright, or a WGA registration, does NOT guarantee protection of intellectual property.
A copyright or WGA registration simply provides a piece of EVIDENCE as to when and where you first held ownership of your material.
So if you registered or copyrighted your script on June 4, 2011, it does not mean that as of June 4, 2011, your script is protected. It means you have one piece of evidence saying that on June 4, 2011, this particular piece of intellectual property was in your possession.
…And that piece of evidence may or may not be enough to convince a court of law you yourself created this particular intellectual property.
In fact, a screenplay or piece of literature is “copyrighted” the instant you commit it to paper; it doesn’t technically need to be officially copyrighted or registered… but those things help if you need to prove your timeline in a court of law.
However, as my lawyer-friend says, you could just as easily mail yourself the script in a sealed envelope on June 4, 2011… never open it until you’re in court… and, thanks to the postmark, prove you had the script on June 4. (I had always heard this “poor man’s copyright” was bogus and ineffectual, but she says nothing is 100 percent effectual or ineffectual… it’s all just potential evidence helping to prove when you executed your idea on paper.)
The point is… if you should need to prove, legally, that you created a script, treatment, story, or other type of “creative execution” before someone else, you must prove at least a couple things:
1) That your execution and their execution are identical or similar enough to suggest actual theft
2) That you possessed your “execution” before they did. If you copyright or register your chupacabra script on June 4, 2011… but they produce a June 2 email with their chupacabra script attached… you’ll have a much tougher time proving you wrote the original script. The fact that you obtained an official copyright or WGA registration does NOT mean you have protection or a more powerful piece of evidence.
And in order to prove those things, you need evidence. …Which is what copyrights, WGA registration, and sealed envelopes all offer. Not protection… just potential pieces of evidence.
So the real question is…
Is it worth it to WGA-register or copyright your work?
Well… if registering or copyrighting your scripts or treatments gives you piece of mind… go for it. (WGA registration is $20; copyright filing is $35.) The truth is: I think a lot of people like registering their script with the Guild simply because it seems cool; it makes them seem like a “real” screenwriter– “Hey, my script is registered with the Writers Guild!” So if you wanna do it– pay your $20 and feel good.
Never—I repeat: NEVER—put your WGA registration or copyright number, or even a ©, on your script when sending it to a studio, network, agency, or producer.
It is a HUGE red flag, screaming, “I’m not ready for the professional world—don’t take me seriously!” Why?…
Because there is no bigger sign of an amateur than someone who’s worried about their stuff being stolen.
Now, I can’t speak as much to the film world, but I’m a firm believer that in the TV world, MATERIALS DO NOT GET STOLEN.Newbies like to think they do… and everyone thinks they have a story of how someone stole their pitch… or a friend who got their script ripped off… but those people are—99% of the time—DEAD WRONG.
Firstly, it is nearly impossible, in the world of TV, to steal a script or idea from the writer. Why?…
Because TV shows work very differently than movies.
A movie is a “finite” piece of work. It happens once… it’s over… it can never be repeated or continued. So when a screenwriter writes a script, it’s sold to a producer or studio and handed to a director; the writer rarely stays involved.
But this can’t happen in television.
TV shows tell new stories week after week, year after year. So they need the writer/creator to help tell and guide the storytelling. And while you could argue that the original writer could be replaced, this rarely happens in TV… especially in the embryonic stages of development.
Normally, one of the reasons studios and networks acquire a show is they love the unique voice and vision of the writer.
Think about some of the great shows of the last decade… Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives, Dan Harmon’s Community, Tom Kapinos’s Californication, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Greg Daniels’s The Office (which I credit to Greg Daniels, because his adaptation is such a departure from Ricky Gervais’s original).
These shows all have fiercely strong, unique voices and visions. I mean, there have been plenty of suburban soap operas, but nobody saw the world quite like Marc Cherry. So it wasn’t the idea of Desperate Housewives that ABC was investing in; it was the unique vision of Marc Cherry. They wouldn’t have done the show without him; they needed him… to shepherd and maintain the wonderful tone and vision he created in his pilot. And while a show may eventually stand on its own feet enough to be run by a different showrunner, most series need—in their delicate first few months—the guidance of the visionaries who created them. This is what networks and studios want to find and buy… not just well-written scripts or ideas.
(Think about Psych and The Mentalist. On paper, these two shows are very similar: “An observant man posing as a psychic uses his amazing powers of intuition to help police solve crimes.”– To be fair, Thomas Jane no longer “fools” police… but he used to.– …Yet no one would confuse Steve Franks’ voice and vision with Bruno Heller’s.)
Thus, I always say…
If your show idea can be done without you… or if you worry your show can be done without you… you haven’t done your job well enough. You haven’t expressed your unique vision in a way that makes you indispensable.
And if your show does NOT have a vision so unique that it can’t be done without you… the networks won’t steal it—they just won’t be interested.
In other words… it’s not ideas that have value in television—a TV idea itself is almost worthless—it’s the person behind the idea.
If a network or studio likes your idea… they want you involved. They need you; the last thing they want is to boot the creative visionary who sees the world of the show in a special way.
So the best—and perhaps only—protection for your TV show?… Have such a unique world-view that buyers can’t do your show without you… and wouldn’t want to.
Here’s another reason being afraid of losing your idea is a sign of an amateur:
Your job, as a TV writer or producer (at any level), is NOT to come up with a brilliant idea and try to protect, write, produce, or sell it.
Your job is to come up with a MILLION ideas to write, produce, or sell.
Most of your ideas will be crap and never go anywhere, but this is how your brain, your imagination, should be working… constantly creating and exploring new avenues. You should be coming up with at least ten fresh ideas a day, good or bad.
This is why overly protective people come off as amateurs (and putting a WGA registration number on your script sends that signal); it suggests this is their only idea, so they’re clinging to it, desperately, in hopes of getting it somewhere.
But people who come up with one great television idea… even a brilliant idea… are not legitimate producers or writers.
They’re just people who had an idea.
And ideas are a dime and dozen… producers with vibrant, fertile imaginations are not.
And like I said: TV ideas, in and of themselves, are worthless; it’s only the producers/writers behind them that have value. I used to have a writing professor who’d say that whatever you’re writing, at any given time, is also being written by at least ten other writers. And he’s right. No matter how “original” you think your idea is… I promise you: it’s been done, tried, developed a hundred times before. Your only hope is to do it differently than everyone else.
(A few years ago, a friend of mine, a TV writer working on a fairly popular show, spent months slaving over an original pilot she was excited about. Days after finishing her final draft, Showtime announced they were doing a series with the exact same premise– and almost the exact same title– from a high-level showrunner! Although my friend was never able to sell her pilot, it was such a good illumination of her voice that she used it to land a job… writing on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
So networks and studios aren’t looking for great ideas; they’re looking for great writers who can execute great ideas. And great writers don’t usually have just one idea; they’re constantly dreaming up new ideas, stories, worlds, and “what ifs.”
Lastly, Hollywood is a creative place… and creativity tends to feed on creativity.
People talk about their work, share ideas, read each other’s scripts, give each other suggestions and notes. A good idea can come from anywhere… a friend, a co-worker, an executive, an agent, your barista or bus driver.
You don’t have to take every suggestion that comes your way, but by being open to people’s thoughts and ideas, you give your work the chance to become as strong as possible.
You also form connections with other creative people. By brainstorming story ideas with a producer today, you position yourself as the imaginative writer he wants to hire tomorrow.
Yet by being overly-protective, you not only miss out on potentially helpful suggestions, you remove yourself from the creative flows and whorls that fuel Hollywood.
(Having said this, I fully recognize the need to shelter a still-tender idea or script from outside influences; sometimes you need to be alone with an idea, letting it marinate in your own creative juices. This is fine… and totally different from the fear of sharing your work because you think it could be stolen.)
So again… if you want to pay to register or copyright your work… go for it. In fact, here are the links to online registration at both the Writers Guild and the U.S. Copyright Office:
Just DON’T PUT IT ON YOUR SCRIPT.
And in the mean time, stop worrying… and start writing.
I hope this helps, guys… and thanks for your questions!