1. Register your project with the U.S. Copyright office.
Remember that an "idea" cannot be copyright protected - it's too general. Rather it is the "execution" of the idea - the detailed expansion of the idea into characters and plot and story - that is capable of being registered with the copyright office (as well as other types of artistic works - but for now we're talking a script or story). Therefore, a script, and even a sufficiently detailed treatment or synopsis can be - and should be - registered with the Copyright Office before it is communicated to those that can use it.
Why not register with the WGA? In short, you get far more bang for your buck with the U.S. Copyright office registration (see the blog Archive for a more detailed discussion). By all means register with the WGA to support their excellent work. But register first and foremost with the U.S. Copyright Office. Online registration is relatively simple and quick: http://www.copyright.gov/eco/
2. Keep a submission log.
Let's put copyright infringement in perspective - it is unlikely that your script, treatment or story will be stolen. Most people in the entertainment industry are honest, hardworking folks that want to reward you for your hard work and talent. But not all.
So in the unlikely event your story and characters are misappropriated (stolen), it will be incumbent on you to prove (a) that it was your story to begin with (through copyright registration), and (b) that the thief had access to your unique material. So a detailed log demonstrating who received what project, when, and by what means (fax, hand delivery, email, etc.) may be the difference between winning a case of copyright infringement and being left a bitter victim.
3. Submit only to those you know (let's put this in the "aspirational" category).
Admittedly this is a bit of a wish - not quite realistic. One of the best ways to avoid the theft of your story is to only submit to those whose reputations proceed them - in a good way. People and companies that come to you as recommended and professional. But that's extremely difficult because it limits your potential targets to those you know; or those that are known by those that you know.
Particularly for fledgling writers, sticking to known or recommended recipients is just too limiting. Clearly an agent or manager familiar with the entertainment landscape can help. But then most fledgling writers are looking for an agent or manager as feverishly as they're looking for an option or sale.
Still, try to research the people and companies to whom you're submitting your material. Stay away from those that have bad stories attached to them. And trust your instincts - if you get the impression a person or company cannot be trusted, don't let ambition cloud your judgment.
4. Beware the submission release.
These days many of those in the film and TV industry will simply not accept unsolicited scripts or ideas, or will not accept anything that doesn't come through an agent, manager or perhaps an attorney.
Similarly, often no submissions or pitches will be accepted without a signed release.
These releases are usually terrible for the writer - often saying "even if I - the unscrupulous producer - steal your idea, you - the writer - agree to waive any right to sue me." Given this "license to steal," the only recommendation is to NEVER such releases. Unfortunately that may mean loosing the opportunity to pitch or submit to that potential sale.
The decision whether to sign and proceed can only be made by the writer, weighing the reputation of the person or company, how the writer found the person or company, and of course those "instincts" mentioned above.
5. Some "reservation" language in the submission letter.
In the letter communicating the submission, include language that the submission is being made confidentially, and that if the recipient is interested, to please contact the writer to discuss the terms of an option or purchase of the story.
While words to this effect do not guarantee your material may not be stolen, and do not guarantee a winning case if the matter were to proceed to a copyright infringement lawsuit, it does put the recipient on notice that this is a submission to the recipient alone, and is not a gift, but instead a submission in the hopes of a sale or option.
6. Don't skimp on professional advice.
Particularly if you're approaching an option or sale, get professional advice - from an entertainment attorney, an agent or a manager.
Recognize that an option or sale agreement can have many moving parts that affect legal rights and compensation many years into the future, and beyond the single movie represented by the script at issue.
A simple, easily understood option/sale agreement may mean the writer looses net points, sequel payments and other significant compensations. And once rights are relinquished by contract, there is usually nothing that can be done to get them back.
Quite simply, trying to save a few hundred dollars on good advice may cost you - or even cost your heirs - tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in the future.
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