How do I Copyright a Screenplay?

Alan Rankin

It is a simple process to copyright a screenplay. The U.S. Copyright Act and similar international agreements hold that a written work is protected by copyright the moment it is created. No registration is required; a copyright notice will be sufficient to declare the work your property. If you are planning to actively market your screenplay, however, you will probably want to register the work with the copyright office of your home country. You can also register with a writer’s union, which, while not legal copyright, offers additional services and protections.

The Writers Guild of America offers an alternative to copyrighting a screenplay by official means.
The Writers Guild of America offers an alternative to copyrighting a screenplay by official means.

According to the 1976 Copyright Act, a work is copyrighted in the United States from the moment it is fixed in a tangible form. In other words, you can copyright a screenplay simply by saving it as a digital or printed copy. To demonstrate that you are aware of and are asserting your copyright, attach a copyright notice in a prominent place, such as the cover or first page. This notice should include the year, your name, and the copyright symbol or a reasonable facsimile. Most copyright notices will look similar to this: (c) 2010 Jane Doe.

Aspiring screenwriters are often concerned that their story or idea can be stolen while they are submitting it to producers or agents. Established professionals know that such theft is rare. It is less expensive for most interested parties to option a promising screenplay rather than risk a lengthy legal battle by stealing it. For peace of mind, however, and because plagiarism does sometimes happen, it may be best to register your screenplay with the U.S. Copyright Office or a similar legal office in other nations.

To copyright a screenplay officially, simply submit a copy to the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, along with the appropriate paperwork and fee. You can register several screenplays at the same time by collecting them under a single title, such as Screenplays by Jane Doe. You cannot include other kinds of writing, such as short stories, in the same collection. In case of plagiarism or theft, the registered work will be legal evidence in a court of law that you created the work at that date.

The Writers Guild of America also offers a registry service that is a feasible alternative if you don’t want to copyright a screenplay by official means. The registry can also serve as admissible legal evidence if necessary, and it has some advantages over the government office. Synopses, outlines, and even ideas can be registered, whereas the same is not true of the Copyright Office, which only registers finished works. You may want to register with both the Copyright Office and the Writers Guild for added protection. Another popular method, mailing the work to yourself in a sealed envelope, offers none of the legal protections of either of these methods and is not an advisable way to copyright a screenplay.

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