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At some point in your writing career, you're probably going to need an attorney. Whether you're a screenwriter, a novelist, a poet, or anything in between, selling your work can be risky business without legal representation. But why? With help from entertainment attorney Sean Pope from Ramo Law, I'm going to walk through the four things a lawyer can do for you when it comes to representing you and your work.
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Sean specifically represents producers in the documentary and docuseries space, but he's worked with a handful of writers and other entertainers, too. Ramo Law, located in Beverly Hills, California, provides comprehensive legal services to clients in the entertainment industry.
So, it was the perfect firm to lean on for a lesson in legalese.
An entertainment attorney represents the interests of an entertainment professional, from directors and producers to actors and influencers. For writers, a screenwriting lawyer is a necessary member of your team (which could also include a manager and an agent) when it comes to protecting yourself and your work, negotiating contracts, advising on complicated legal business matters, and helping connect you with the right people in the industry.
Anything you create is considered intellectual property, but without the proper protection, your work could be plagiarized, and you could be taken advantage of. An attorney can help you navigate how to protect your writing work when it comes to copyright and trademarks, selling your screenplay outright, optioning a script for a period of time, licensing out its use or elements of its story and characters, or preventing its unauthorized use. An attorney can also make sure all your ducks are in a row when it comes to the work you've produced; did you write anything that could get you in trouble? Do you need to secure rights to someone else's story because you were inspired by it? And what about life rights?
Attorneys will ensure your best interests are served during contract negotiations with an employer or if someone wants to buy your work. They could negotiate higher fees than you were willing to ask for because they better understand what's fair, or they could help you understand the fine print in a contract, so you're not surprised down the road.
Writers should always know enough about the industry's business side not to be caught flat-footed when it comes to professional matters, but you can't possibly know everything. This is where your attorney comes in handy. An attorney can advise you on things like pay, labor laws, writing credits, guild and union matters, and more.
It takes all kinds of kinds to make the entertainment business tick, and entertainment attorneys usually work for firms that represent a wide variety of clients. As trusted advisors, they can make valuable connections between your project needs and other talent, and some of your best connections may be made through your attorney for this reason. Of course, you can't hire an attorney just for this, but it's an added benefit!
"So I kind of fulfill two different roles in that respect," Sean began. "You know, on one side it's representing the screenwriter when they have a completed project, or they have a concept that they are optioning or selling to a third party, whether that third party is a producer, a studio, or a network, you know, anyone who is acquiring content. A lot of times, it's a screenplay, but sometimes it's a concept like an unscripted docuseries. So, representing them and looking out for their interests to make sure that they get the best deal possible.
On the other side, I also help screenwriters before that process, especially when they're acquiring underlying rights. If they're acquiring life rights to somebody that they're basing a screenplay around, or they need to option a book because they're adapting the book into a screenplay, helping them get those rights so that when they're ready with their full screenplay, they have that bundle of rights ready in order to go out to a network or studio or another production company that full package. Because otherwise, that studio is going to have a bit more leverage if they have to go out and get the rights to the book themselves, and you don't really have the underlying rights to the screenplay that you've written.
Ensuring that there's a clean chain of title, addressing any questions … You know, we get a lot of questions from screenwriters like, "You know, I'm kind of basing this off of a person that I went to high school with or someone that I went to college with that you know, it might be slightly based on their life, but they're not going to be recognizable," and kind of sussing out the facts there as to whether we need to go out and acquire that person's life rights just to be safe versus this is clearly enough of a story that you have adapted in a way that we feel safe and that there's low risk in going out, taking that screenplay, and then selling it to someone."
When it comes to legal matters, there's a lot to know; the least of it is easy to understand. You're going to want a professional at the ready, so when it comes time to take your work out into the world, prioritize finding the right entertainment representation.
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Better not to take the law into one's own hands,