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How do you protect your intellectual property when you're about to write a screenplay? Is there any particular step you can take in order to make sure that the intellectual property stays firmly in your hand and that the people you pitch the idea to don't get to just steal it without properly compensating you for your efforts?

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  • What country are you in? – Ron Beyer Jun 17 at 1:02
  • the united states – Sayaman Jun 17 at 1:04
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    It's not especially realistic to worry about this. Many people are convinced they have the most awesome idea ever for a book or a movie. The reality is that your problem won't be that the studio wants your idea too much, it will be that the studio doesn't want your idea at all, or isn't even interested in considering it. – Ben Crowell Jun 18 at 16:34
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    There's an important difference between "intellectual property" which is a catchall term for various different legal rights, and an idea or concept. Copyright is copyright, trademark is trademark, patent is patent, and none of these protect a general idea or concept. – barbecue Jun 18 at 16:52
  • In addition to what Ben said, unless you have lots of money to throw at lawyers more than likely you won't be able to litigate a clear violation of your copyright, nevermind more murky cases. So really in most cases your options in practice are very limited regardless of what you do. – eps Jun 19 at 16:13
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In addition to copyright, the Writers Guild has a registration system for registering scripts, treatments, synopses and outlines. Among other things, the guild agrees to have someone show up in court to give evidence as to the date a document was deposited. Their registration carries weight in the film industry since there are many cross-guild/union agreements that can constrain actions.

It is not an alternative to copyright - please register it with the U.S. Copyright office.

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  • Is this free and can anyone use it? – Sayaman Jun 17 at 2:43
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    If you follow the link you can find out that it is open to members and non-members. It is $20 a document for non-members and $10 for members. It does not take the place of registering with the U.S. copyright office. – George White Jun 17 at 3:08
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Someone writing a screenplay is the author of the work under copyright law by operation of law. Ideally, you should have a footer or header that contains your name, the circle c symbol, and the year it is written. Once it is complete, the copyright can be registered with the registrar of copyrights in Washington D.C. which is part of the Library of Congress.

Sometimes a screenplay will give rise to potentially trademarked spinoff products and you may want to identify potential trademarks in the course of writing it, to also seek to protect, although you will need some idea of what kinds of good or services would be sold with the trademarks sought.

Other best practices are to decline to review or accept unpublished draft screenplays or stories from other authors who can claim that you stole their ideas, to document your drafts in a time stamped manner that can be proven to a third-party, and to consult an attorney before signing any licensing or intellectual property transfer documents or contracts.

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With great difficulty, if at all.

There is a somewhat well-known phenomenon called twin films, where two very similar films are released at approximately the same time; for instance, one famous case of this was the case of the Disney film A Bug's Life, and the Dreamworks film Antz, which were both released in 1998. If even big companies like them can't stop each other from stealing their ideas, it'd probably be even more difficult for an independent creator to prevent others from also doing so.

This is consequence of the fact that copyright doesn't cover ideas, it covers specific implementations of them. If you show someone a script for a movie about an ant worker going on an adventure to save the hive, there's nothing stopping someone you show it to from going off to write their own screenplay about a movie where an ant worker goes on an adventure to save the hive, as long as they don't copy any of the content of your script.

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    You can ask them to sign a document where they promise not to make a film about an ant worker without paying you, but they will rather not read your screen play than signing this - the risk is too big that the screenplay is unusable, and signing would block the possibility of finding someone who can write a better screenplay based on the idea. – gnasher729 Jun 17 at 12:14
  • The big question is: how does the business work (in reality)? I mean are some companies just taking script and sending them to their staff to rewrite the same thing. Really? It sounds unprofessional, but maybe thats how it is. Is a relation to an agent protecting you from such things? Well, how does the business work is really my question – lalala Jun 17 at 12:33
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    While both of your examples were animated feature film about "bugs", that's pretty much the only similarity. You can't copyright or trademark a generic concept, only a treatment of that concept. – Michael Richardson Jun 17 at 14:05
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    @lalala: Those of us outside of creative industries often get this strange notion that ideas are somehow valuable. Ideas are worthless, from an economic perspective. Any serious writer has a list of unused ideas a mile long. The valuable work is in the execution. Writing out specific lines of dialog, or action. Character development, worldbuilding, all that stuff. That's why copyright doesn't protect ideas. – Kevin Jun 17 at 16:27
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    @lalala I've heard that most legitimate film studios won't even look at a script that wasn't submitted by an agent along with appropriate legal agreements, to avoid the possibility of impropriety. – Barmar Jun 17 at 23:21
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If you are outside the U.S. when the work of art is created, in most countries, you are the copyright owner by the creation of the art.

Now of course, you want to get some proof that you actually created the work of art, but nowadays it’s fairly easy to get digital files time stamped once you upload your work to web storage.

It is also important to remember that copyrights are almost exactly what they sound: They are, in general, meant as legal protection from reproduction, and they are less effective as means to protect the rather abstract of its subject.

For example, the computer executable instructions as components of an invention may manifest in an infinite number of forms to effectuate the same result, each of which may be the subject of copyright in most jurisdictions by a software engineer coding it, but unless they are, as considered under the law and precedent, close enough to each other, they will not allow for a claim to their potentially different authors.

It can be therefore a good idea to keep all the drafts, and alternative versions as they offer additional breadth to the scope one may claim.

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    In particular, unlike patents or trademarks, copyright is not exclusive. There is nothing stopping you from writing The Godfather. Copyright is only stopping you from copying it. If, however, you can convincingly prove in court, that you have never seen, read about, heard of, been told about, etc. anything about The Godfather, and that you truly came up with the story all on your own, and it only happens to be exactly identical, then nobody can stop you from making that movie or selling that screenplay. It's just a very hard thing to prove, and given that writing is creative, and … – Jörg W Mittag Jun 18 at 11:33
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    involves thousands of individual choices, it is extremely unlikely that you will happen to make every single choice exactly the same as Mario Puzo did. Even for just ten independent binary choices, the probability of making the same ones is less than 0.1 percent / 1-in-1000. And it very quickly drops to less than 1 in the number of particles in the observable universe. – Jörg W Mittag Jun 18 at 11:34
  • @JörgWMittag Copyright 2021 by an Infinite number of moneys typing – barbecue Jun 18 at 17:02
  • @Jörg W Mittag agreed! – kisspuska Jun 18 at 17:52

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