The Thieves of Hollywood: How to Protect Your Screenplay… or Not

“I’m afraid someone will steal my script. I’ve worked so hard on it and it’s really unique. I would be devastated if it got stolen. ”

First, let me say this. I originally wrote this article some years ago about the ways that screenwriters try to protect their screenplays.  A handful of writers got angry about what I wrote because the things I mentioned are not “full protection,” so I’m updating this article to make the punchline clearer.

In fact, let me start with the summary first since it seems that it was missed previously:

There’s basically no way to protect your screenplay from the thieves in Hollywood who want to steal it.  

Was I trying to not be quite so direct about it? Yes, because I know that saying the truth so directly can be discouraging to aspiring writers. But several writers sent me messages bawling me out because of the ideas I suggested to TRY (note, try) to protect your work are not absolute.  I’m updating this article to address that as clearly as I possibly can.

In case it wasn’t clear before… let me try to be extra clear now, repeat, and elaborate on what I wrote above:

The big business of Hollywood will damn well steal your idea and modify it just enough to get away with it … if they damn well choose to do so. And there won’t be a damn thing you can do about it.

If you speak to almost any professional screenwriter, they will tell you that their ideas or their scripts have been stolen and they have been cut out of the picture.  AND… they accept this as a way of life and just try to get others made.

THIS… ladies and gentlemen…. is the sad, sad truth.

But don’t despair for long… there’s hope.

Although many ideas get stolen or borrowed from, many other screenplays do get optioned, sold, and produced. If you want a chance to sell your screenplay, you just have to do what you can to keep a paper trail and detailed records so you could make your best case if it should come to pass that your idea was, in fact, stolen.

Example… my client Brian Webster. He was the original writer of “Jingle All the Way.”  His idea was stolen.  He was in the movie theatre with his kids when he realized they were saying his lines in the movie. That was the beginning of the lawsuit.

I’m not going into detail on that case here, but Google it and you can read a variety of articles on what happened… and then didn’t happen.

This legitimate fear of having your work stolen is a fairly common fear that holds newbie screenwriters back. Again, we ask, “Is this fear of having your work stolen founded?” But this time my answer is both “yes” and “no.”

“Yes” because many stories are in fact ripped off, as I described above.

But “No” because many writers think their story has been stolen when another story has just a few similar elements.

The reason so many production companies and studios require scripts to be submitted by an agent or manager is because there are a lot of crazy “writers” out there who want to sue them over stealing their idea because of some small similarity that has ZERO legitimate grounds.  Even if the studio knows a case is ridiculous, they have to deal with it whenever a case is filed against them.  Hence… “no unsolicited submissions are accepted.”

As an example, at Smart Girls Productions I had a case like that and we don’t even produce movies!

I was hired to write a screenplay titled “Psychic Seduction.” Meanwhile, there was an aspiring writer who had seen my ads and sent me an unsolicited pamphlet (not a script, mind you) with the word “psychic” in the title. He threatened to sue me for stealing his idea, just because we both had the word “psychic” in our titles.

If a small office like Smart Girls who is not even producing movies gets threats of lawsuits, then it’s hard telling how many lawsuits a studio deals with on a weekly basis – 99% of which are unfounded.

One final point before I address the viability of the 5 ways people tout as ways to protect your script.  

You cannot protect an idea, you can only protect the execution of it.

In other words, if you have a great idea for a story and you tell that idea to someone, you have no claim to that story whatsoever.  Even if you write your version and they write their version — you still have no protection of the idea itself.

It would be like trying to protect your idea that someone should come up with a way for cars to run on air, and then someone creates that invention and you say “that was my idea.”

An idea is worth nothing – the value is the execution of the idea, the story itself — so it comes down to protecting the execution of your story, meaning the screenplay itself.

Now I will address some of the ways people think they can protect their story and whether it actually does protect it or not and I will address these as questions.

1. Am I protected if I register my script with the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA)?

Go on and register your  script with the Writer’s Guild when you complete a very strong treatment or at the end of your first draft. Then register it again when you have a major revision. The WGA keeps it on file for around five years.  This is intended to be a legitimate record of the script being at a certain place of development at a certain time.

Does this actually “protect” you?  Simply put, if you ever have a case to make, this would be one piece of evidence for you to try to make your case.

NOTHING fully protects you because you’re never going to see a script turned into a movie with absolutely no changes. So then it becomes a question of how much is similar.  Bottom line, this is one more piece of evidence that could be presented as part of your case.

2. Am I protected if I register my script with the U.S. Copyright office?

When you register with the U.S. Copyright office, your script is protected under copyright law for 50 years or more. (See current copyright law.)

Does this protect you?  Again, think of it as another piece of evidence to try to make your case with.  As with every movie, when the film is done, there are naturally changes that occur on the set and in the editing room.  With each change, it gets further and further away from the original script.

If your script was stolen and it was the basis of that movie, proving it was stolen becomes increasingly difficult.  While getting a copyright is not enough to prove your case, if you have to choose between having NO RECORD of it being registered or copyrighted and HAVING A RECORD of it being registered or copyrighted, then it’s better to have the record.  It’s one more bit of evidence to support your case.

3. Am I protected if I mail my script to myself and keep the envelope sealed?

This point is one I’ve gotten a lot of flack on and understandably so.  I will again try to explain this more thoroughly and clearly.

Firstly, I personally have NEVER liked this idea ever.  It’s just not my thing.  But some writers who like to feel more in control add this to their list of things to do to help their case.  If you want to do this, fine, just be sure when you get it back that it has a clear postmark, and NEVER open the envelope… EVER. If there is a case, it would be presented in court to the judge.

One writer complained to me that this could be easily faked.

Okay, let’s look at that.  To fake it, you would have to know how to backdate a legitimate USPS postmark date.  And if you are doing that, well…. that’s just crazy. Not to mention the following thing you would also have to do.

After you fake the postmark date, you would also have to watch a movie, type it all up with a few changes so as not to look suspicious, then put the script in your envelope with the fake USPS date stamp.

Really?  And then by the way… you’d have to sell a lawyer on taking the case and a judge on ruling in your favor… with nothing but a fake USPS envelope and a fake typed script that is exactly like the movie.

Oh… you mean you could fake it by opening the envelope and stuffing another script inside the envelope that had a legitimate postmark?

You would still have to watch the movie, transcribe the entire thing, and type it in proper format, remove the script that’s inside your “legit stamped envelope” and put the new movie you just saw in there. Although wait… it wouldn’t be a new movie because that is only in the theatre and you wouldn’t yet be able to transcribe it word for word.

Okay, so faking the USPS stamped self-addressed envelope would take a lot of work and have zero chance of getting representation as the sole piece of evidence.

So the real question is, if you have a legit, unopened postmarked copy with the script you wrote inside “Does it protect you in any way?”

“Protect” would be too strong a word for all of these things.  NONE — as in none of these, zero, zilcho, none — fully protect you.

So again I answer… just as in any non-clear-cut legal case, you have to “make your case.” The more evidence you can pile up to prove something was stolen or plagiarized, the better.

By no means will mailing to yourself “protect” you, per se. But if you do it, it can add to your evidence.  Some writers will register or copyright major drafts, then self-mail some of the updated drafts along the way just for the record.

SO to be clear…. for anyone who is still unclear… I never intended to suggest that this alone would protect you…. but apparently some writers read it that way and got mad. (See comments below.) — but it is one more possible way to add to the evidence.

Moving on….

4.  Am I protected if I keep a paper trail tracking each and every company and person I interact with about my script?

A best practice is to keep detailed notes and track where your idea is traveling. If you attend pitchfests or networking events, keep a log of who you pitch to, the name of the person, their position if you have it, their company, and the date.

I repeat… the more information you have, the better.

When we used to prepare query letter mailings for writers through Smart Girls, we always gave a printed list of the name of the person you’re sending to, the company, address, phone number. We also put the DATE on the list.  This alone would not be enough to prove that someone stole your idea, but it would add to the circumstantial evidence.

Unlike blind postings online, this is a paper trail on who sees your story.  While it is not direct evidence, the more information you have to make your case, the better.

5. Am I protected if I sign their release which basically sounds like I’m signing over my rights?

If you’ve ever seen a release from a production company who wants to read your script, you know it seems like you’re giving them the right to steal your script. But the bottom-line is that you either sign it or they won’t read it.

Although the release is designed to protect them, it also adds protection for you as it’s an acknowledgement from them that they’re reading it — more documentation for your paper trail log.

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So there you have it.  While none of these ways to try to protect your work are absolute, these are five ways to add evidence to your case should you need it.

But more importantly, don’t let the fear of having your work stolen keep you from marketing it or you’ll never have any chance of selling it.

Protect yourself the best you can. Keep a paper trail of where your story travels. Also, know that some of your ideas or some version of them or your screenplay will probably be stolen if you become a professional writer… or it will at least seem like it.  It’s a fact of Hollywood and the screenwriter’s life…. Just keep writing your screenplays.

By the way, I am not a lawyer. The things I’ve written here are not legal advice. These are my opinions based on more than 20 years of working in Hollywood and speaking with hundreds of agents, producers, lawyers, and everyone else in the business.

If you’re ready to get your script out to Hollywood – even though you might be afraid of it being stolen —  check out the variety of marketing services you can use to get your awesome screenplay in the hands of the right people in Hollywood.