Breaking-In the Biz: How to Protect Your Intellectual Property

Jon James Miller shares advice on understanding the value of your own work and the importance of protecting your intellectual property while navigating breaking into Hollywood.
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Recently, a young artist friend of mine eager to break into show business asked my advice on entering one of her original monster character designs into a talent contest being run by one of the major studios. The studio had partnered with a popular platform for remote content creation, used by studios, brands and creative individuals throughout the world. The studio in question is renowned for its universe of monsters and were looking for fresh material to potentially launch a new horror movie franchise. It seemed like an incredible opportunity for my friend to break-in with her original monster designs. But before I told my excited friend to press send on her content submission, I read the contest fine print.

It didn’t take long to find those four words that strike fear into every creative marketing their wares to Hollywood: Work Made For Hire. According to the United States Copyright Act, any and all intellectual property created in a “work made for hire” arrangement will forever be retained by the company or individual who commissioned the artist to create that work in the first place. To my young friend, this meant she would be pre-emptively signing over all her rights, in perpetuity, to her work in the event her original monster design won or was a runner-up in the studio contest. Her only compensation would be the cash prize, in this case $10,000, or just $1,000 if her design was a runner-up. What’s more, by signing over her intellectual property, she would have no legal recourse to assert any right to her original designs – in the event the studio successfully launched a billion-dollar horror movie franchise based on it.

[The IP in VIP: How Intellectual Property Will Make Your Writing Career Soar]

So, I zoomed my friend and explained the situation. And this is where it got sticky for her. Understandably, she is hungry to get her career off the ground, and the contest sounded like a perfect vehicle to do that. On the other hand, if she won all she would ever make off her creation was a total of $10,000. No screen or creative credit would ever see the light of day. Now, $10,000 may sound like a lot of money to an artist straight out of art school. But when you consider the amount of money that could be made if she retained the rights to her creation and a studio wanted to buy it on the open market – the sky is literally the limit when you are talking about an original horror franchise and all the ancillary markets that are available to it. I sympathized with her that it is one of the hardest decisions a hungry young artist first hitting Hollywood must make and told her the ultimate decision was totally up to her.

I came away from our conversation remembering all the hard decisions I faced when I first came to Los Angeles straight out of film school. I was so eager to get my work out there that I didn’t particularly know or care about how to protect my intellectual property. I remember it even being a hardship plunking down $20 to get my script registered with the Writers Guild of America, west. Bringing my two-brass brad fastened, 120-page hard copy screenplay to the WGAw’s offices on Fairfax Avenue across from the Farmer’s Market was always a quixotic experience. I knew that registering my latest opus was the smart move but at the same time throwing $20 across the counter meant I wasn’t going to eat breakfast for a couple of days. I chalked it up to investing in my own future, for when my spec created a buying frenzy among the studios and the only thing saving me from becoming another Hollywood cautionary tale was that I had taken the precaution of protecting my script from being stolen. Flash-forward two decades, I can now safely say I would have been better off walking across the street and getting a croissant and latte at the Farmers Market for that $20. Not that registering my script with the WGAw was a bad thing but more my entrée into the business was never going to happen that way.

No, my understanding of intellectual property and how Hollywood monetizes it took many more years for me to fully grasp. First, I had to understand the value of my own work and what it meant to protect it before sharing it with the industry. I knew from being around the business the horror stories of people making their first sale, only to be fired immediately from their own project when the studio “wanted to go in a different direction” from their original vision. I had friends who were heartbroken after finding out that their big break turned out to be a catch-and-kill by a producer who already had a similar project in the works and optioned their script to keep it off the market long enough to sell their project to the studios. I even watched two good friends who had become writing partners squabble over their percentage of ownership (they had never bothered to sign a writer’s collaboration agreement) after attracting a buyer for their spec script. Long story short, the producer sensed the project didn’t have a clear chain-of-title (one of the writers was holding out for more money) and walked, extinguishing a ten-year friendship in the process.

Why am I telling you these Hollywood nightmares? Well, because if you’re like me you try to learn from other people’s experiences and steer clear of traps while navigating your writing career. That’s why I think it's important for people serious about making it in the film industry to move to Los Angeles because it’s the friendships you make with fellow writers and industry folks that help you learn how this town works. For instance, one of my best teachable moments came when a screenwriting friend of mine began writing a spec based on the 1990s game craze known as POGS. POGS were all the rage in the early nineties, and my friend had an inside track on the woman called the “Mother of POGs” the game’s creator. It was the break of a lifetime for a young screenwriter, one that could make someone the new “flavor of the month” in Hollywood.

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My friend, we’ll call him Syd, had a friend who was best friends with Blossom Galbiso, a lovely young woman working at the Waialua Elementary School in Oahu, Hawaii. Blossom was a schoolteacher and guidance counselor when she introduced her class to an old game she had learned from her mother known as Milk Caps. Blossom reinvented the old game using the illustrated cardboard caps from a favorite mixed juice drink named "Passionfruit-Orange-Guava," or "POG," made on the island of Maui. The game had taken-off immediately with every kid in Hawaii and soon became a national obsession virtually overnight. Syd grabbed a flight to Oahu and met Blossom to talk about her inspiration for POGS and ask her if he could write a script based on her life story. Pretty soon, Syd was flying back to Los Angeles, believing his Hollywood dream was finally in sight. Syd landed and immediately set about writing the spec script based on Blossom and how she created the hottest kid’s game in America. Meanwhile, me and every one of Syd’s friends in LA began speculating on how much money he would get for his breakthrough script sale.

[Suspension of Disbelief: Making a Hollywood Dream a Reality]

But then the worst happened. Shortly after Christmas 1994, Blossom died unexpectedly at the age of 45. It was a tremendous blow to everyone who knew the lovely teacher and mother. But once the initial shock wore off, Syd soon realized what that meant for his Hollywood dream. Because he had never secured the life rights to Blossom “Mother of POGS” Galbiso’s story, he had no clear chain-of-title to the story his entire spec script was based on. Pretty soon, all the interest the town had in him evaporated. POGS: The Movie would ultimately never be made, and the POG game craze would be over before the end of the decade. Syd ended up moving out of Los Angeles never realizing his Hollywood dream. Would things have played out differently, had he thought to secure Blossom’s life rights to the origins of POGS? Sadly, no one will ever know. But I came away from my friend’s experience a lot smarter about how to secure intellectual property before you invest countless hours of your time in development.

Oh, and what of my friend the young artist, you ask? She ended up not entering the studio monster design contest after all, and two weeks later landed a job at a VFX shop based on her original monster designs. Sometimes things turn out for the best.

Jon James Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, novelist and short story writer. His debut novel, Looking For Garbo a noir thriller was published by Amphorae Publishing Group and is a 2019 INDIES Book Award Finalist, and 2019 MiPA Book Awards Finalist. Jon is represented by Jill Marr at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. 


In the upcoming Sell Your Script Safely: How to Protect Your Intellectual Property, Jon will explain how to safely market your screenplay to Hollywood while retaining the rights that will help you build a writing career in the industry. 

Sign up now for his live webinar on Thursday, March 25 at 1:00 pm PST.

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