There are two main ways that you can protect your screenplay from theft – using the Writer’s Guild of America’s (WGA) registration service or sending it to the Library of Congress for a copyright.
I used to send all my scripts to the WGA. It doesn’t cost too much and it’s very easy. Within a few days of submitting they will send you a sheet back with your WGA registration number on it and an official looking piece of paper as proof of registration. You can now register online, too, so it’s even quicker and easier.
However, I no longer bother registering any of my scripts with the WGA. Submitting to the Library of Congress isn’t too much harder and is actually cheaper in the long run because you never have to renew it. The WGA’s registration service only lasts for 5 years so you have to renew it every 5 years. The copyright lasts essentially for the life of the author (there are some different criteria for the exact date and length of the copyright but it lasts a long time and you’ll never have to renew it (See this page for exact details on how long a copyright lasts: http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-duration.html).
The WGA is much faster than the copyright office. If you finish a script and need to register it fast (producers and directors will often not read material unless it’s copyrighted or registered with the WGA) you might want to go with the WGA. If you use the online registration service you can actually get a WGA number instantly. With the copyright office it takes a few months for them to send you back your copyright information.
Another thing I don’t like about the WGA registration is the numbers are chronological so it’s pretty easy for a producer or director to tell how old the script is. If they see that your WGA number is much lower than what’s currently being issued it might reflect negatively on your script. I have many scripts that were written 5 or more years ago and I’d rather not let a producer know that if I can help it. It might give them the feeling like my script isn’t fresh and has been passed on many times (often true) which isn’t something I want the producer to be thinking while they’re reading my script.
With that said if you want to register your script with the WGA you can go here:
If you want to get a copyright on your script you can go here:
Use this form: http://www.copyright.gov/forms/formgr_pa.pdf
This is the actual PDF that you need to print and send in – about half way through this page is form PA (Performing Arts) with instructions. You only need to fill out form PA.
The prices change from time to time so make sure you double check the actual cost when you send it in. You can find the fees listed here: http://www.copyright.gov/docs/fees.html
You’re filling out “Registration of a basic claim in an original work of authorship on Form CO or other paper form.” At the time of this writing (February 2009) the cost is $45.
I’m no lawyer so please don’t take this post as any sort of legal advice. Always consult with a good entertainment lawyer if you have legal questions about your screenplay. My understanding of copyright law is that people are not allowed to steal your work even if you haven’t sent it to the Library of Congress or the WGA. Doing either of those things simply makes it easier to prove that a work or idea is yours and when it was created. By not having an official copyright or WGA registration number it doesn’t mean people are allowed to steal your work – they’re not. It just might be harder to prove that it’s your work and when you created that work if you ever have to take someone to court.
I find a lot of writers are overly concerned with people stealing their “great ideas.” In my experience I’ve never read or even heard an idea that was so great in-and-of-itself that anyone could turn it into a great script. A screenplay is a lot more than one idea. It’s the execution of a lot of ideas together. My advice is to send your script to anyone who seems half-way legitimate but always use caution. Get a copyright on your script and keep track of whom you’re sending it to but don’t worry too much about people stealing your ideas. You’re going to have to send your scripts out if you ever expect to sell them.
If a producer is smart enough to raise a million dollars or more to shoot your script why wouldn’t they pay you for your efforts? It would be stupid not to. Stealing it would be more hassle than it’s worth. Nobody wants their movie tied up in legal battles after it is shot.
If a wanna-be writer is simply going to take your script and send it out as their own let them. If they ever do sell your script and it gets made you’ll know about it and it will be quite easy for you to make a claim against them since you’ve got a copyright on it.
If someone solicits scripts and all they’re trying to do is steal other people’s ideas so they can make one master work compilation of all the great ideas that are floating around out there I seriously doubt they’re smart enough to pull it off and if they are I wish them luck.
Update: I created a video which will guide you through this entire process. You can find the video here: Video: How to legally protect your screenplay by registering it with the WGA and the Library of Congress