Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Avoid Screenwriting Copyright Problems

You’ve heard the horror stories: screenwriters who end up with no credit for a produced film, writers who aren’t paid their fair share for sequels and prequels, and screenwriters who are embarrassingly credited for terrible films that barely resemble the script they first wrote. And the stories get worse.

Wondering how to avoid screenwriting copyright problems like these? With proper counsel, it is possible to protect yourself and your creative work, even when working with a writing partner. And if you don’t have an attorney on call, you can heed this advice from attorney Sean Pope at Ramo Law.

  • Avoid handshake deals on screenwriting credit

  • Determine who owns the screenplay rights

  • Consider all screenplay possibilities

  • Copyright your screenplay

Sean mainly works with producers and production companies on all aspects of legal services, and he has experience representing screenwriters to help negotiate deals that serve them best.

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In this article, Sean goes in-depth on copyright problems that frequently crop up in his line of work, plus how you can easily avoid these issues by taking time to think through what you want for yourself and your screenplay.

Avoid Handshake Deals on Screenwriting Credit

“One of the more important things that I see come up every once in a while is a screenwriter will work in tandem with someone, whether it’s another writer or whether it’s a producer, to help craft their screenplay, but it’s on a handshake deal,” Sean began.

Of course, you want to trust your writing partner. It’s key to being able to collaborate. But having an agreement in writing will prevent future heartache. It could also force you to have difficult conversations about the script, its potential, and what you want to happen to it; consider who you will and won’t sell to, what kind of rewriting you’ll allow, and how you’ll determine writing credits.

“They’ll have an understanding that’s not on paper, that’s like, “Hey, we’ll agree that we’ll go and sell this together.” And it might all be great at the onset, but then once money becomes involved and a production company is interested, everyone’s understanding of that handshake deal can change.”

Determine Who Owns the Screenplay Rights

“So I think one of the most important things for screenwriters to think about when they’re collaborating with others is should we get some type of paperwork in place between us as to who owns the rights to the screenplay; whether we own them together, whether one of us owns them, how we’re kind of structuring that to the extent that we are doing rewrites and we might want to control some approval rights between who we’re going out with, with this screenplay,” Sean said.

Just because you are both working on the screenplay doesn’t mean you’ll both own the rights unless you structure a contract that way, of course. If one person is doing more writing than the other, how will you weigh decisions in the future? Add this to your written agreement. Don’t leave it to chance – or lawyers – to decide for you.

Consider All Screenplay Possibilities

“We might have a family-friendly screenplay that we don’t want to sell to certain distributors or certain networks because we want it to wind up on other networks, more family-friendly networks. How are we going to determine where we’re going out with this screenplay? I think those are important aspects that people don’t typically think about when they’re working on their screenplay that can hurt you in the future because there can be issues with that chain of title as you move forward and you’re trying to sell your screenplay.”

When working through a written agreement with a writing partner or a producer, it’s essential to look beyond screenplay credits and ownership to the many business decisions that will come your way if you sell your script. It’d be wise to think through things such as how you will market the screenplay and to whom, who will decide when to sell or decline, who will own rights to sequels, prequels, and spinoffs, and who will write those spinoffs if one writer on the team isn’t available, and more.  

Copyright Your Screenplay

“Beyond that, it’s important to copyright your screenplay with the US Copyright Office. It’s something a lawyer can walk you through. It’s a relatively simple online submission process. Some writers also submit it to the WGA, and that’s also fine, but ultimately, the US Copyright Office is the official place where you’d be registering your screenplay.”

Writers should always copyright their screenplays. Think of WGA registration (or registration with the writing union in your country) as a bonus. Learn more about copyright, its associated costs, and its benefits. 

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Most screenplay copyright problems are avoidable if you do the hard work upfront; have the tough conversations with your writing partner about how you’ll handle the business side of the screenplay collaboration. After all, the goal is almost always to sell the script, so treat those decisions with the same weight that you give your writing decisions. In the end, everyone has a mutual understanding and agreement that will prevent arguments and steep legal fees in the future.

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