Look, I get it. We all have heard the horror stories of filmmakers sharing their ideas with the wrong person and suddenly seeing them up on screen without their knowledge or consent. But let’s not take caution too far. You don’t want to become trapped in the fear of sharing that leads you to do nothing. Unless you plan to novelize and self-publish your story, you are going to have share it at some point, because let’s face it, even books need to be pitched.
You must get to a point where you can share your idea. In fact, boldly share it! Otherwise it will never get made.
I’m not saying let’s be foolhardy either. There are things you can do to help protect your script idea. In fact, producers want you to have your work protected. No one wants the negative reputation of being accused of stealing someone’s idea. That’s why so many companies simply will not take unsolicited material.
The Protective Power of Copyright
By far, the best way to protect your script, treatment or idea is to copyright it. There are plenty of other articles written around this, so I won’t go into detail here. But here are some key facts to keep in mind.
In the U.S., the moment you write something down, you have copyright. But you must register the copyright to help provide the evidence, or standing, of the copyright. It sounds intimidating to do, but it’s not. There is a specific copyright for scripts, which you can research and use.
The U.S. has copyright law agreements with many other countries, so non-U.S. writers can also copyright their scripts in their home country.
What Can I Copyright?
Well, that’s not an easy one. Copyrightable material is more than just an idea. Would a prudent and reasonable person understand what your idea is, and if stolen, be able to recognize the idea? Simply put, it’s hard.
You must have names and places and be very clear on a) who’s the hero, b) what is their goal, and c) what/who is preventing them from obtaining their goal. It can be a treatment rather than a full script, and you can update the copyright as you bring the script further to life.
Can the “poor man’s copyright” work? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that mailing your idea to yourself will hold up in court.
Register Your Work with the WGA
Another way to help prove that your idea is your own is by registering your treatment or script with the Writers Guild of America. This is not fully protective, and they say right on their site that registration does not replace the power of an official government copyright. However, registration shows you are taking steps to protect your story. It’s all about how you can articulate that something is genuinely your idea.
Once you get your U.S. Copyright number and WGA Registration number, you can put that information right on your script—on the lower left-hand side.
What about NDAs?
How about asking someone to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement? I have found that on the East Coast, as we are usually dealing with technology, this is a very common ask, whereas on the West Coast, not many people even bring up an NDA. So, it depends on who you’re dealing with and what feels appropriate.
I can say for myself that an NDA deters me. Why? I am working on multiple original ideas of my own, as well as many other ideas of those I’m collaborating with on projects. I’m 99% sure I’m not going to be able to take on another thing, much less steal it. Still, most times, I find people who pitch me are in the same genre I love—fantasy and sci-fi. And if the idea is generic enough, they’ll think I stole something from their idea. It’s simply just not worth it. So, if someone asks me to sign an NDA, I’d rather just pass entirely and not risk being accused of anything.
Keep Things in Perspective
Think about this: What makes your idea so special?
There are literally thousands of screenplays written every year and many more tens of thousands of ideas. The fear of having your specific idea stolen is usually unfounded; it’s just not nearly as likely as you might believe. I get that we all love our ideas, but do we really think someone is going to waste all the time, effort, resources and money involved in stealing them? I have personally witnessed people who never do anything with an idea out of fear that it will be stolen. That’s so unproductive.
I’m not trying to undermine the need to protect your idea. I just want to shed some light on the topic and offer a way to protect your idea in the most effective way. At the end of the day, a legitimate producer, investor or manager wants you to own your idea and protect it as much as you do.