I caught up with founder partner of Collab Writers and founder of the Raindance Film Festival and the British Independent Film Awards, Elliot Grove. We met at The Library Club in central London, where Collab Writers will be hosting a monthly networking event to encourage creative collaboration.
***Please note: Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice and is presented for educational purposes only based upon the experience of Elliot Grove. Please consult a lawyer if you require legal advice.
Jennie Griffiths: Elliot, with your experience of scripts and movie making – please do share your experience of copyright and explain it to the rookie writer / filmmaker
Elliot Grove: I can try!
Copyright law around the world is based on a simple premise- surrounding the planet earth there is a cloud of ideas. Any two people at the same time can pull down the same idea and download it from the universe. And, ideas are free.
What is copyrightable is the expression of the idea, be it as a poem, sculpture, libretto, novel or script. Sometimes, the difference between what is an expression of an idea and what is an idea can become complicated. Some lawyers make a living from this.
Basically, two writers can come up with the same storyline for a novel, or movie for that matter. They write two very different manuscripts, but the storyline idea (which cannot be copyright protected) cannot be disputed.
JG: Can’t writers just put the ‘©’ symbol alongside their work to confirm ownership?
EG: Many writers and artists labour under the misconception that they must fill out an official form, and write the letter ‘©’ to assert their claim for ownership of the copyright. In fact, all countries recognize that the artist owns copyright from the moment it is created.
The difficulty arises in proving ownership when it is disputed.
JG: So how can writers protect their ideas?
EG: Well, Rule #1 is that you cannot copyright or protect an idea.
This is the whole point of copyright law. Your first task after coming up with a great idea for a movie is to write as detailed an account of your idea as possible. Generally, a page or two is not sufficient to distinguish your ideas from your competitors. Three pages are better, but I recommend ten. After all, you have an idea for a movie that will end up being ninety to a hundred- and-twenty pages long. Surely you can outline the key points in ten pages.
JG: Who owns the copyright of your manuscript / script?
EG: Rule #2 – You own the copyright of your script or treatment the moment it is created. Suppose you are in your ivory tower, typing your hundred-page screenplay. You are on a complete roll, when suddenly, near the bottom of page ninety-nine you hear the two most dreaded words a screenwriter will ever hear bouncing up the walls of your ivory tower – ‘Dinner’s ready!’
You race down for dinner, storm through your food, and race back to your typewriter only to discover that an erstwhile copyright thief has taken the ninety-nine page manuscript from you, and typed a new page hundred and is now claiming ownership of the script.
You created the screenplay (minus page hundred) and you own the copyright. The only way that you lose the copyright is by assigning the title of the screenplay to someone else, presumably for a wad of cash. The difficulty is in proving that you own the copyright.
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JG: So, how do you prove ownership? Is this Rule #3?
EG: Well screenwriters can apply to have their script registered upon completion, in a similar way that parents apply for a birth certificate for their newborns. It is called Certificate of Registration, and is available from the Writers Guild of America at http://www.wga.org
At the time of writing, the fee is a modest $20.00. Send a copy of the final version of the screenplay. For your money, you will receive a letter with the date your script was received along with a serial number (to assist in file retrieval). Keep this number confidential.
Other writers register their scripts or manuscripts with the United States Copyright Office. You can check the current fees from http://www.loc.gov/copyright or call +1 202 707 3000.
In the UK, other art organizations, the trade union BECTU and also Raindance provide the service free to its members. And for a limited time this service is free to Collab Writers Founder Members.
Once you’ve registered,
you can promote and market your manuscript to your heart’s content knowing that you are able to prove the date of creation.
JG – So that’s all there is to it?
EG: Not so fast JG! Proof of ownership is Rule #4.
There’s an additional piece of administrative detail, which you must attend to in order to back up the birth certificate of your creation. Should you ever get into a dispute with another writer, or with a producer who you suspect of using your script with permission, you need to prove that you are the one who registered the screenplay.
It’s a little like a property transaction, proving the chain of title, where your solicitor will look at the deeds of the house you are buying and trace all the previous owners back in time to make sure that the title has no unpaid mortgages, liens for city taxes and so on. Screenplays are classed as intellectual property.
Similarly, screenwriters also need to prove chain of title, although it is less formal than in property dealing. You have to keep a formal record of everyone you speak to about your screenplay.
JG: This is starting to sound quite complicated. When we sat down, you said there were Ten rules?
EG: ‘Fraid so – and Rule #5 I call ‘the Ten Thousand Monkeys’
American scientists proved the theory of ‘isn’t it amazing about the common currency of ideas in circulation; with an experiment in the South Pacific. There they found six islands, on which lived a unique species of monkey, totalling ten thousand. One fifth of the island grew sweet potatoes; a very good food for monkeys – but none of the monkeys ate sweet potatoes. Approximately six hundred monkeys lived on the sixth island- the one without sweet potatoes.
The scientists introduced sweet potatoes, trained few monkeys to dig up the potatoes, take them to the ocean and wash them, and then eat them.
A very strange thing happened when approximately a hundred of the six hundred monkeys were digging up the sweet potatoes, taking them to the ocean and washing then and eating them. Suddenly, the monkeys on the other islands started to dig up sweet potatoes, take them to the ocean to wash them and eat them.
Isn’t it amazing about the common currency of ideas in circulation?
When I moved to London from Toronto in 1986, I was used to being a Lone Ranger. In Toronto, if I had an idea for literally anything, I would be isolated by all my acquaintances (I didn’t really have ‘friends’) because they thought me, with my crazy ideas, quite weird.
But when I moved to London, not fully appreciating the difference in size, and the broad depth of this cosmopolitan and multi-cultural city, I suddenly felt at one with a huge number of unseen friends. And whenever I have an idea I would read about it in the newspaper the very next day – pretty scary for a writer.
Remember that whatever your idea for a movie is, I can guarantee you that at least a dozen other people in the world right now have exactly the same idea. The only difference is that you are reading this page and attempting to get it out onto paper. Remember that all ideas are basically sound. What makes an ordinary idea exciting is the way you bend, reshape and state the idea. The expression of the idea is yours, and yours alone. The bolder and fresher you can be, the more valuable your idea will be in the market place.
JG: This is fascinating stuff Elliot. So, subject to the caveat of getting legal advice…if writers follow these rules it means their ideas and intellectual property is safe, right?
EG: Not exactly….Rule #6 Jennie is ‘Misfortune’
For example: What if you have a great idea for a movie, register it for copyright, and voilà – someone else is already making the movie? What would you do? Sue them? Give up writing?
Misfortune is a weird and dangerous thing. Consider this true story of a writing friend of mine in London. She came up with a concept for a television show based on the true-life experiences of people living alone, but sharing accommodation. In order to secure stories, she placed ads in London’s famous Time Out magazine advertising for people to write in with their stories.
She prepared a questionnaire for potential participants, which she returned to each person who responded to the ad. This process took place over a long period of time. Just as she was approaching her goal of getting the right mix of people for her series of shows, she was summoned to of a local magazine and saw an ad that was worded identically to hers.
She responded and received a questionnaire exactly like the one she had prepared in London, some eighteen months earlier. Back in London, she conferred with an entertainment attorney, another good friend of mine. He told her that she had a potential case for copyright infringement, which he was willing to pursue for nothing, as a favour. In those days, hard costs would have been $5,000 to $10,000. As she didn’t happen to have that much cash lying around for a speculative enterprise such as this, he advised her to pass.
Even if she won her case she would still have had to prove that she had suffered financial damages. As it was difficult to see how a classified ad in the States could possibly infringe on a television show destined for the United Kingdom, she decided to let it go. A few months later, the trades announced the production start of a movie I cannot name for legal reasons.
My friend had a great attitude to this misfortune. She shrugged her shoulders and simply said that it proved that her ideas were commercially viable, and she moved on to the next project.
JG: Gosh, just goes to show how careful you need to be…can you tell us something about waiver letters and submission releases. Could we make this Rule #7?
EG: We sure can – I was wondering how we could get to that. Your questions are the perfect example of how to lead an interview!
Sometimes when you submit a script to a production company, they will send your script back with a letter that they want you to sign. The letter basically states that they want you to cast aside your right to sue them for copyright infringement if they ever make a film resembling in any way your screenplay.
If you don’t feel comfortable with the letter don’t sign it. The film company will not read your script. Go find someone else to make your movie. Of course, I believe that astute writers understand that these waivers are designed by film companies, not to make it easier to plunder screenplays, but to protect them from dishonest screenwriters. Either way you look at it, don’t do anything unless you feel comfortable.
JG: Can we talk about Non-disclosure agreements? How do they work in the film industry?
EG: Sure, let’s make this Rule # 8 then? I’m not sure if I can make it to 10 – but I’ll try!
Pitching ideas blind to a film company can be considered a form of an open invitation for them to take your ideas. You could get them to sign a Non-disclosure agreement. It’s a binding contract where each party agrees not to discuss their ideas with anyone else unless certain pre-agreed conditions are met.
JG: I’ve recently watched Clint Eastwood’s ‘The Mule’ based on a newspaper article of a true crime. How might Clint have gone about acquiring the rights to a such a story and how can writers do this?
EG: Great example, this can be Rule #9 – Writers will often become aware of a real-life story through a newspaper account or television news piece. In order to acquire the screenplay rights to a person’s true-life story, you need to approach the individual directly and secure their written permission to base a screenplay on their life.
Probably the easiest way to contact this person is through the journalist who originally created the story. Through this contact, approach the individual directly, and see if you can persuade them to allow you to write the story of their life.
There are certain laws governing the stories of someone who has been convicted of a crime. Most countries will not allow a prisoner to profit from any story about their crime, through the American ‘Son of Sam’ laws or similar. If you are contacting a prisoner, make sure you engage the service of an entertainment attorney who can offer expert advice.
JG: Sounds like fascinating but choppy waters to navigate. Well done Elliot! But that’s Rule #9! What’s your Rule #10!
EG: I’ll have to make Rule #10 an urban myth as I’m running out of copyright rules!
Putting your script into a self-addressed registered mail envelop to yourself simply doesn’t cut it. You need to give your script to a registered third party.
JG: This has been immensely helpful Elliot, thanks. Any final words of copyright caution from experience?
Take your time to understand copyright. If you want to know more Raindance do run a course on it from time to time led by a specialist lawyer – so, do look out for that.
Never tell anyone an idea until you have written it down as completely as possible and registered it.
Be professional. Keep track, in writing, of everyone you have discussed your manuscript with.
If you require permission to tell someone’s story, be absolutely certain that you have the necessary permission before you start writing. And, if needs be, seek legal advice.
If you want to meet other writers and collaborate, check out the Collab Writers Networking Drinks at The Library in London’s Theatre Land