Thursday, July 1, 2010

How to Copyright a Script, and Idea Stealing

Stephanie writes: I wrote a MODERN FAMILY spec script and now all my friends want to read it, but I'm wary about sending it out. Is it normal to copyright a spec script? What's the process if not?

Aspiring writers generally don't really "copyright" scripts at the spec level, but you can register them with the WGA to protect yourself. The necessity of this is debatable, but some script fellowships/contests/etc actually require that scripts are registered for submission. When you write a script for a studio, the studio will copyright it.

That being said, know that ideas get stolen a lot less frequently than people think they get stolen. Other writers have their own ideas and probably don't need yours. Especially with a spec of a TV show, it's not like you created a big concept and world and characters... you only have an episodic plot to be worried about. Also, at this stage, if you're just sending to friends, you should be safe - provided you've picked good friends. :)

I suppose it's possible that ABC could air an episode of MODERN FAMILY in the future that's just like yours - but it's unlikely that that episode had anything to do with yours. If your spec idea "airs," you just have to be content that you were on the same wavelength as the writers and move on. It's more upsetting if you come up with an entire original idea and then someone else sells the same one, but people think of similar ideas all the time. It's just how the industry works, and even if there was some kind of idea theft involved, it's nearly impossible to prove it in court.

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Chad said...

Speaking of the possibility that a network "steal" someone's idea from a spec script (I wasn't...weren't you?), Ken Levine recently posted a couple really interesting pieces about the process he and his partner went through in creating a Mary Tyler Moore spec script that was oddly similar to a later show. Ken doesn't suspect theft, and notes that the network writers actually improved the idea. Worth a read:

Paul A Newman said...

Copywriting your work is important. If you do think someone has stolen your work, copywriting is legal protection. Registering with the guild means nothing in a court of law.

That said I don't think anyone should worry about their ideas getting stolen. Different people coming up with incredibly similar ideas happens all the time. I had an idea similar to My Dead Ex-Fiance. Did they steal it? No. Two people had similar ideas. Happens all the time. It sucks, but move on.


Jay Faerber said...

It's also worth noting that "ideas" are a dime a dozen. It's the execution of an idea that truly makes the script.

Get Me an Entertainment Job said...

Gracias, Amanda! Once again, you give fab advice. If it wasn't for your blog, I wouldn't have even known about the fellowship.

Angry Bear said...

Worrying about someone stealing your idea for a spec episode of a TV show that isn't yours -- is a waste of time. It's a sample to show what you can do.

You can't sell it and it will never get made, so stop worrying and send it out.

januaryfire said...

Please, before you give out advice that can have a legal impact on writers, do a little research such as this link to the U.S. Copyright Office:

Read the FAQ's. ( It'll answer many questions including: How long will copyright last? (copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.)

The WGAw site FAQ's ( notes that it does NOT take the place of registering with the Library of Congress. It also notes that WGAw registration only lasts 5 years; it'll need to be renewed.

Blogging "You don't really 'copyright' scripts" is dangerous; people can read it the wrong way and take it as legal advice.

I do agree with your opinion about stolen ideas. Anyone's value as a writer is in their execution of the idea.