Monday, February 7, 2011

Column: Screenwriting: Protecting Your Work by Karen Albright Lin

I have an idea for a great movie. I have my pitch all ready to go. It’s high concept. I even have a rough treatment (synopsis) and a catchy title. I’d like to stir up interest in the idea, then write it. I plan to pitch it at the Monterey Bay Film Festival. Should I?

NO, NO and NO.

Titles and ideas are not protected. Hollywood is notorious for stealing and running with ideas. You are much better off waiting until you have a completed product. It’s probably cheaper to pay you for the draft than to be dragged through a lawsuit. Speaking of lawsuits, be prepared to sign a waivor. Hollywood types are paranoid about lawsuits and usually want you to release them of liability in case anything they are developing looks like your idea. Sounds like a bum deal. Right? But look at it from their POV and sign it. As my mentor, Jan Jones, once preached, you can’t get exposure if you don’t allow yourself to feel a little vulnerable. Dealing with known entities helps you protect yourself.

Once you’ve written your screenplay it’s important to protect it. The legal issues of ownership are no laughing matter in Hollywood. Art Buchwald sued Paramount in 1990 claiming they stole his script idea and made it into Coming to America. He won the breach of contract lawsuit and sizeable damages.

You can copyright your script, which gives you dated evidence that holds up well in courts. Also register your screenplay with the Writers Guild of America (West or East). The Guild serves many purposes for its members (such as pensions and health plans). For nonmembers, they will hold your material (now electronically, five years, $20). If ownership of the material or primary versus secondary writer position are ever in dispute, the WGA will negotiate based on what and when the claiment has registered.

As protection for both parties, some producer/directors will ask for your WGA registration number when they request your script. It shows you’re a professional if you have one.

Once you’ve protected your script, it will be time to get it evaluated and exposed. I’ll discuss ways to do that in my next post. Meanwhile, keep your dialogue snappy and your directions brief. Don’t step on the director. Avoid dusk and dawn.

Karen is an editor, ghost writer, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll) each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at

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