Must-Know Legal Tips for TV and Screenwriters

“I’m a writer,” you say. “Why do I need to know a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo?”

The answer, in the proverbial nutshell, is: “Because if you don’t know how to protect yourself from the very beginning, you’re gonna get screwed.”

Here’s what we’re talking about:

by Danny Jiminian, Esq.

As if navigating the fundamentals of scriptwriting to create a great script was not hard enough, you also have to make sure you know how to copyright a screenplay and avoid certain other legal pitfalls.

It is very easy to overlook these risky liabilities because you are so invested in getting your characters, your dialogue, your plot and so on, just right.

Since you probably don’t have a studio department that will clear your script for you before it’s too late, I wanted to give you five tips that can help you avoid all the liabilities that can come back to haunt you later.

1. How To Copyright A Script

Always register your script with the US Copyright Office. While the Writers Guild of America (East/West) serves the primary purpose of providing writers with a “public claim of authorship,” federal U.S. Copyright registration offers that and two additional benefits.

Federal copyright registration lasts longer: WGA branches keep your material on file for either five or ten years, and longer if you pay for renewals.

However, U.S. screenplay copyright registration lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.

You can file a stronger copyright infringement claim. If your copyright is registered BEFORE the infringement occurs, you can seek statutory damages and reimbursement of legal fees in addition to the basic “actual damages and infringer’s profits” when you sue.

This matters because it is difficult to determine the value of a copyright and its infringement so “actual damages and infringer’s profits” might not amount to much.

In that situation, a victory in court without an award for statutory damages and legal fees would make you seriously reconsider the cost of suing even if you should in principle.

And if you haven’t heard it by now, DON’T DO THE POOR MAN’S COPYRIGHT (i.e. mailing your script to yourself and then storing it, unopened).

Trust me — it’s worthless and won’t hold up in court. Get yourself a proper script copyright and rest easy at night.

2. Get A Collaborators Agreement

If you’re co-writing a screenplay, write up a collaborator’s agreement with any and all writers you are writing with.

Too many creatives, from producers to directors to writers, find out too late the importance of having things in writing.

Oral contracts are enforceable but difficult to enforce. If you want to be a professional in the film industry then treat every aspect of your working relationship with the seriousness it deserves….