There’s an idea in your head that you think would make a great film or TV series. You may not have written anything yet, but you want to start sharing the idea with people for feedback. This can be tricky, as many early stage ideas are vulnerable to being borrowed (ahem, stolen) - but it’s next to impossible to get anyone to champion your idea unless you share it.
Here are some easy guidelines for those of you who are just learning the business. (Now remember, none of this takes the place of advice given to you directly by an attorney, but it’s a place to start your exploration.)
Is It Ready?
Your idea (whether it’s a treatment, a script, or still in your head) is your own, but the United States has some pretty specific guidelines about what is protectable by law.
When something is a creative idea protectable by law, it is known as Intellectual Property. This means that it is original enough, and contains enough specificity and detail, to be considered your own.
Let’s look at a few examples:
The Pitch: Two girls go on a road trip and have a crazy adventure.
This is not protectable, as it’s pretty general and could be an idea in a lot of different minds at the moment.
The Pitch: Sara and Tisha are friends from college who go on a road trip and have a crazy adventure.
You’d still have a tough time protecting this, as it’s not giving any real detail about the story.
The Pitch: Cardi B goes on a road trip and has a crazy adventure.
Are you Cardi B? Or do you have a written contract with Cardi B giving you permission to use her name and story? If not, you can’t protect this idea. (There are loopholes for things like satire, but for that we 100% recommend you call a lawyer because you can quickly get into trouble for infringing on the rights of others.)
The Pitch: Best friends Ryan, Sasha, Lisa and Dina are in for the adventure of a lifetime when they travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival. Along the way, they rekindle their sisterhood and rediscover their wild side by doing enough dancing, drinking, brawling and romancing to make the Big Easy blush.
You cannot protect this idea because it’s not yours. It’s Girls’ Trip.
The Pitch: College roommates Sara and Tisha go on a road trip across Nevada after graduation, but find themselves on the run from a local pirate after accidentally rear-ending his tall ship and making off with a chest full of gold. The girls learn valuable lessons as the chase takes them through an amusement park and an automotive distribution center, finally concluding in a duel on the Vegas Strip.
Good news! There will likely be enough detail and specificity here to defend the idea as your own, once you get it into a treatment format. (Hey - we didn’t say it had to be good.)
Putting It On Paper (or PDF)
The next step is getting it into a format that you can register. Treatments and scripts are common formats.
A treatment includes a synopsis, with an outline of the plot and descriptions of the characters. These are usually just a few pages long, and you can find samples for both films and series online.
A script includes the dialog and additional direction. Now, proper script formatting is something that makes a lot of new writers nervous, but that’s not something to worry about here. You can still register a script without professional formatting.
Give Credit Where Credit Is Due
If the idea is yours and yours alone, you’re ready to move on to the next step. If the idea was developed in collaboration with someone else, as part of a discussion with someone else, or borrows ideas from someone else - it’s best to discuss this with them and agree on how the project will be registered. This will save you a lot of headache and bad karma in the future.
Making It Official
This next step has to do with establishing a “public claim of authorship,” essentially creating legal evidence that you created something, when you said you did. It will also help you recoup losses if you need to prove something in court.
To do so, you will need the completed treatment or script, the author(s) legal name and SSN#, and to pay any associated fees.
Writers Guild of America Registry
The WGA is the screenwriter's union, but you do not need to be a member to use their registry services.
WGAwest ($10 WGA members, $20 nonmember; good for 5 years) https://www.wgawregistry.org
WGAeast https://www.wgaeast.org/script_registration ($10 WGA members, $17 students with ID, $25 nonmembers; good for 10 years)
After registering, you will receive a WGA Registration number that you can add to the first page of your treatment or script.
- OR -
US Copyright Office
The U.S. copyright office charges a $35 fee for electronic submissions https://www.copyright.gov/register/performing.html. It takes about 3 months to issue the copyright, however you are not without protection during that time. The copyright is issued from the date of the postmark and is usually good for the author’s lifetime, plus 70 years.
It’s unnecessary to do both, and definitely unnecessary to list both on your treatment or script. If you opt to not include the WGA registration, you should include a copyright notice (whether or not you submitted it for a copyright) that includes the word “copyright” or the copyright symbol “©”, your name, the year. [EXAMPLE: © 2018 Jane Jones]
Proceed With Care
As with all businesses, you should seek out partners with reputations for being fair and ethical. Most professionals do not actively seek to steal or appropriate the works of others, but the same can’t necessarily be said about random strangers in the coffee shop. Use your best judgement and, when in doubt, move the conversation to a trackable format, such as email.