PrimeTime: The Truth About Protecting Your Work

There is no bigger sign of an amateur than someone who's worried about their stuff being stolen. If you worry your show can be stolen… you haven't written it well enough.
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Thank you to everyone who came out this weekend to the Great American Pitchfest! ...And especially thanks to those of you I met at my pitching seminar, "7 1/2 Ingredient to a Perfect Pitch." It was an incredible turnout... it was wonderful to meet you all... and thank you for the great response! To those who couldn't make it... try and come next year! The whole GAPF weekend was a blast: great people, terrific writers, amazing speakers and presenters.

Anyway, before getting to this week's question, a couple fun announcements…

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1) I'll be the special guest this Sunday night, June 12, at 6:30 on Script's TV Writer Chat (www.tvwriterchat.com), a live online chat and discussion for and about TV writers and writing. So come up with some good questions, and click HERE to learn more or participate… I hope to see you online!

2) Check out my interview with Pilar Alessandra on this week's "On the Page" podcast. Pilar runs On the Page, a terrific screenwriting consultancy and workshop… and she also produces the "On the Page Podcast," which features interviews with screenwriters, directors, performers, and authors. We talk about taking and incorporating script notes, selling pilots, breaking in—you name it. It was a blast doing the podcast, so it hope it's as much fun to listen to! Find the podcast on iTunes… or click HERE and enjoy! (UPDATE: the "On the Page" website seems to be having some technical issues with the podcasts, so if it doesn't work, just go to iTunes. They're in the process of fixing it, so if it doesn't work, I'll try to post a better link as soon as I have one...)

And now… this week's question(s), which actually come from several people over the past few weeks.

Jerry writes…

Do I need to register my script with the WGA, or protect it somehow, before sending it to agents, studios, etc.?

Catherine writes…

I have an idea for a TV show which I've registered with the WGA, but I recently learned that a cable network is developing an almost identical show idea! I've never pitched or had contact with this company, but do I have any recourse for keeping or protecting my idea?

Evelyn writes…

I've always registered my script ideas with the Writers Guild's script registration service, but I recently heard that it offers no actual protection… and only an only official copyright carries any weight. WTF?! Why am I doing it? Why do they even have it?!

Good questions, all… this is always a sticky issue. There are several factors at play…

  • Is an idea protectable?
  • What's the best way to protect your writing?
  • Is it worth it to legally protect your work?

In fact, I checked in with an entertainment lawyer before tackling these questions, just because it can be a confusing area.

First of all, let's get one thing straight…

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.

 The only thing you own...

The only thing you own...

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 or ProtectRite registration, does NOT guarantee protection of intellectual property.

A copyright, WGA or Protectrite 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.

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So the real question is…

Is it worth it to ProtectRite, 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.

However…

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—DEADWRONG.

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…

 The only true way to protect your work... or sell it.

The only true way to protect your work... or sell it.

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.

 What your TV ideas are worth...

What your TV ideas are worth...

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 exactsamepremise-- 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 the Writers Guild,the U.S. Copyright Office, as well as ProtectRite:

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!

If you—or anyone else—has more questions, thoughts, or comments… please feel free to post them below, tweet me at @chadgervich, or email me at chad@chadgervich.

And to tide you over till next week, here's a preview for NBC's new sitcom, Are You There, Vodka, It's Me, Chelsea

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Rsd8_c107I