Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Copyright or Register Your Screenplay

Copyright or Register Your Screenplay

Please note: SoCreate gathered the following advice from online sources including the U.S. Copyright Office, Writers Guild of America, and Legal Zoom. It is presented for educational purposes only and should not be used as legal advice.

Horror stories circle the screenwriting community: a writer spends months on a brilliant screenplay, submits it to production companies, and gets rejected outright. Ouch. Two years later, an eerily similar movie lands in theaters. And the writer’s heart lands in their stomach. Double ouch.

Whether intentional theft or coincidence is at play, this situation can really sink a screenwriter’s spirits. Some writers even hoard their great work to make sure it doesn’t happen to them! But what’s a screenplay without the chance of production?

So, before you pitch your screenplay, protect yourself. We’ve rounded up some information below to help our screenwriter friends stay safe from greedy thieves.  

Best option: U.S. Copyright

Most countries recognize that the moment you create something and execute on it, you own the copyright. However, the timing isn’t so easy to prove. You’ll want an official, third-party time stamp that exists on public record if you’re going to have any luck proving in court that your work was stolen.

The U.S. Copyright Office makes this easy, if you’ve got $35 and 2-10 months to spare. Yes, the processing time is LENGTHY. But so was the process to write your masterpiece, so we think it’s worth the wait.

The official copyright is good until the grim reaper comes knocking, plus 70 years after that.

In the meantime, you should still add “copyright” to your screenplay’s title page, with or without official third-party record. Remember: you wrote it, so you own it. To do this, simply add the word “Copyright” or the copyright symbol, then your name, then the date the material was created. For example:  

Copyright Courtney Meznarich, January 2019.

An official U.S. Copyright is your best weapon against thieves if things get real: with this in hand, you can sue for statutory damages and reimbursement of legal fees. Without it, you can only seek actual damages and profits from the infringing party. And if someone steals your baby, you want that money, honey. So, go get that copyright!

Next best (and quicker) option: WGA Registration

Registration with the Writers Guild of America (East or West) does offer some protection. It provides official documentation that you, in fact, wrote your screenplay on a given date. WGA can produce your material as evidence if legal action is initiated. You can also add WGA registration information to your screenplay’s title page, just to put people on notice that you’re not messing around. And, unlike the U.S. Copyright Office, WGA allows you to register any files that can help you prove the work is yours, including but not limited to scripts, treatments, synopses, and outlines.

It’s cheaper than a U.S. Copyright, too ($20-$22 for nonmembers, $10 for members), and processing time is nearly instant. So, if you’re in a hurry to pitch your script, WGA may be a good option for you.

The cons? Registration is only good for 5-10 years (depending on WGA East or WGA West), and you’ll have to pay renewal fees to extend that. And, if you do have the misfortune of ending up in court, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to recoup the cost of your legal fees, or statutory damages, which typically requires a U.S. Copyright.

The most terrible, no-good option: Poor Man’s Copyright

We’re not sure who’s giving out this advice, but they must not like you very much. “Just put your script in a self-addressed stamped envelope,” they said. “It will prove when your work was written,” they said. No, no, no. This is not a substitute for copyright registration, and we just love screenwriters too much to end this blog without reinforcing this. To protect yourself, involve a reputable third-party.

U.S. Copyright vs. WGA Registration

How to copyright or register your screenplay

Some other info to keep in mind:

Collaborator’s Agreement

If you’re writing your script with another person or multiple people, you should also consider writing up a collaborator’s agreement. It could include the following:

  • Who owns what?

  • How much will each writer earn, and when?

  • What will you do if the script doesn’t sell, or if the film isn’t made?

  • What are the terms of each writer’s contribution?

Third Party Registries

There are other third-party screenplay registries out there, and they offer a similar service to WGA. But you should research them thoroughly: how long have they been around? Will they still be around in 5 years, and more importantly, will your screenplay still be registered there in 5 years?

More Protection

Some other ways to protect yourself: be picky about who you share your work with and keep clear records of those interactions. Finally, let’s level with each other: yes, screenplay theft does happen. But it is rare. More often, two (or more) people live similar experiences, in similar times, and write very similar stories. Also, it is so much easier and cheaper for someone to just buy your script, rather than steal it and re-write it. So, let’s not jump to conclusions when a movie pops up that is oh-so-similar to a screenplay we’ve written, because it doesn’t automatically mean it was stolen. But, let’s be ready if that day comes. 

You may also be interested in...

Screenwriter Doug Richardson - What Being a Professional Screenwriter Really Teaches You

Screenwriter Doug Richardson - What Being A Professional Screenwriter REALLY Teaches You

Ever wondered what being a professional screenwriter REALLY teaches you? Screenwriter, Doug Richardson, shares his ideas on one of the biggest lessons there is to learn for professional screenwriters. "What being a professional screenwriter really does is teach you how to grow through adversity. People who are watching the movie, at the end of the day, are they going to like it? Are they not? Are they going to talk to somebody and say 'Hey, I saw this really great movie! I'm going to give it 5 stars. I'm going to give it 4 stars.' That's adversity. You're trying to get THAT. You need to admit to yourself, 'Hey...
Award-Worthy Advice from Award-Winning Screenwriter, Peter Dunne

Award-Worthy Advice From Award-Winning Screenwriter, Peter Dunne

Award-winning producer and screenwriter, Peter Dunne, shares his advice on when our best writing happens at Central Coast Writers Conference 2017. “Our best writing happens when the thinking stops. We are often surprised of what we are writing about. In fact, the next morning you may look at your work and say, ‘Wow, I wrote that?’ The writing comes to us after we allow the thinking to drift away. We have to be aware as writers that writing is for us to discover who we are; not to tell everybody who we are as we know ourselves, but to allow the writing to tell us how we really feel...
Screenwriter Tom Schulman - Does Winning An Oscar Make You A Better Writer?

Screenwriter Tom Schulman - Does Winning An Oscar Make You A Better Writer?

Academy Award winning writer, Tom Schulman shared his thoughts on whether or not winning an Oscar makes you a better writer at this year's Central Coast Writers Conference. "One thing that happens when you win an Oscar is that people say 'I don't want to give an Oscar writer notes. If he wrote this it must be good.' And that's just wrong. You are no better for having won it than you were for not. And you are no better afterwards, so in fact you're probably worse because your ego is too big and you are gonna be messing it up." -Tom Schulman Dead Poets Society (written by) What About Bob?...

Comments