Copyrighting Your Written Copy

Got an email recently asking me about copyrighting work so I thought I’d answer it here.

Basically the question was do I copyright my scripts to protect myself. As this is really a legal question, you can imagine how many different ways there are to answer this. Moreover, as copyright laws differ from nation to nation things only get more complicated the more questions you ask. But the short answer is yes, I protect myself.

I’m going to state some things now but lets bear in mind that I’m just a schmuck and nothing beats consulting a professional entertainment lawyer (as I’ve stated previously) in your country.

The fact is, purely upon creating a work, you also create and own that copyright. No forms to fill out, no governing bodies to register with, you are the copyright holder of that work (unless you’re under contract that says otherwise). The real issue with regard to that copyright is being able to prove that you are the original creator of the work.

The easiest way to legally make this claim (in Canada) is to register your work with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. There’s a fee and you receive a pretty little paper that has your name on it. When I was a teenager my friends and I used to print t-shirts. For kicks, or maybe delusions of grandeur, I saved up my allowance and registered my favourite t-shirt design with the copyright office. Even then I couldn’t understand how they could issue a certificate for the copyright without ever seeing the work… Amazingly - or perhaps not, given the bureaucratic nature of government - this practice hasn’t changed. When you register a work with the CIPO, all they ask for is a title. None the less, this is still the most legal of legal documents proving your ownership of the work.

Next up, the guilds. This type of registration makes a little more sense to me because both the Writers Guild of Canada and of America both allow you to submit and will store your script for the duration of the registration period. What’s that? The registration period? Ah, there’s the rub. The WGC and the WGA both only honour your registration for five years. A good chunk of time if you’re actively out hustling a project, but it’s no lifetime protection. Both guilds have online registration forms. I register with the WGA West because it’s half the cost ($20 USD) of the WGC (sorry WGC, but c’mon).

As mentioned above, you own your work’s copyright simply by having created it; the real issue is protection. What you need is evidence that you created the work so that if it is stolen (which sucks by the way, believe me) and it ever comes before a judge you can prove the work was yours first. So as a failsafe for every script I still practice the age old mail-it-to-yourself trick. You take a hard copy of your work, you seal it in an envelope and you send it through the mail to yourself. What’s important here is the date that will appear on the postmark and that the envelope stays sealed so that if and when it is ever opened, it is done so by the judge.

That said, I’ve never heard of anybody actually ever having to fall back on this method. The reason for this is probably that, according to a lawyer I once spoke to, only 2% of copyright claim cases ever get as far as a trial that would ever involve a judge. Most are settled out of court.

So that’s copyrighting from your side of things. I’ll need to do an entirely new post at some point on the basics of what to look out for when signing documents that involve your copyright. That’s where the real fun begins.

The horrible, horrible fun.

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