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Bob writes a movie screenplay (or a "treatment", meaning a detailed plot/screenplay approximation) and sends it to Rob at a movie studio which in turn makes a movie based on the screenplay or treatment.

Is that movie a derivative work? Is Bob's work legally protected anyhow (absent a contract)?

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Clear cut Copyright infringement

By being given a screenplay, reading and using it, Rob made a derivative work of the screenplay. He needs a license to do so. This means he would need to pay the required fees.

Bob's work is under copyright, Rob's movie is copyright infringement

However, movie studios shield themselves by not reading unsolicided scripts

Normally, you can't just send in unsolicited screenplays and gain a case for a movie that comes later. If they arrive, someone puts them into a big old shredder and nobody reads it. Because nobody at the studio reads them, the studio has no knowledge of the contents. Because there is no knowledge, there is no way they used the contents. Because they had no knowledge and could not use the contents, they couldn't infringe copyright. Any similarities of a screenplay with such an unsolicited text are circumstantial or Scenes a Faire - and not copyright infringement.

See the Zootopia case of Gary L. Goldman’s Esplanade Productions v Disney, which was smacked down for he could not prove that Disney actually ever read his pitch and used it. In part the case failed because Esplanade never provided what he sent to disney.

See the Rocky case of Anderson v Stallone in that you can not acquire a copyright in a work by making an unlicensed treatise on an existing franchise made from scenes-a-faire things.

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  • Why assume that the screenplay was unsolicited? Say Bob first asks if he can send one, and Rob (from my original version of the question) says "okay, send it, I'll take a look). Then, the studio in question doesn't have to follow the etiquette you quoted, they may read unsolicited stuff.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Mar 20 at 12:41
  • @Jen I consider it immaterial whether the screenplay send was solicited. Just don't make assumptions either way.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Mar 20 at 12:43
  • @Jen If it does make a difference, any assumption would make the answer too narrow. Both cases should be addressed then.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Mar 20 at 12:46
  • @Jen the rest of the answer is a frame challenge to the offered hypothetical.
    – Trish
    Commented Mar 20 at 13:10
  • @Greendrake the solicited/unsolicited script part is material. Anderson v Stallone.
    – Trish
    Commented Mar 20 at 16:47

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