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This is something that is probably on every (aspiring) screenwriter’s mind. And not only on screenwriters’ minds, but any creator of anything. The issue of intellectual property. And in the case of authors, which screenwriters are, this is called copyright. And you see it often stated in books and at the end of movies like this: “No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.” By international law, it also states that copyright happens automatically. As soon as an author puts anything on paper, voila, it is copyrighted. You are now officially, by law, the owner of this work. It doesn’t have to be publically published first, and neither do you have to request for it somewhere or register it even. Great, right? Well, not so fast.
Because then comes the biggest and hardest part, in two-fold. First, what you put on that paper (old-fashioned or digitally), has to be original and distinctive as such. What does that mean? That a general story idea is not protected. An idea about a story about a boy who falls in love with a girl, is way too general. There are thousands of stories, if not more, like it. It doesn’t mean you can’t write one and call it your own, but it simply means, that when you see another story with this idea, you don’t have enough to claim copyright for the idea. Unless of course it is written out in such detail, that any derivative from it, can be traced back to this original. Now, in our world of storytelling, like I have mentioned over and over, no story is really original. Every story has been told in one form or another. The key is to find a unique angle, way of telling it, and enough differences, that it doesn’t resemble any other. Second, in case you share your story with someone, when that person then decides to elope with it and it goes somewhere big and you want compensation, you will have to prove that you wrote the story first. For anyone who still has the poor man’s copyright in their mind, throw that idea out pronto, because it really does nothing for you (printing your work and sending it to yourself by the real mail and never opening the envelope won’t work, since envelopes can be easily opened these days and closed, without a trace). This is why many still do register their work via the only legal way that really holds up in (international) court and has some real teeth, without putting a hole in your wallet, the US Copyright. It costs only 35 dollars and starts the minute you register your work, even though you will only get the certificate months later. The most important thing in this, is that your work is indeed distinctive and original enough to be recognized, when something is derived from it. And no, registering it with the Writers Guild, West or East, what many do also, is not a good substitute and won’t help you in any way and will only cost you unnecessary money.
Now, why am I talking about this topic now? Well, because I recently happened to share my story, what I had so far, with someone who is actually in the industry. And even though I know I have enough of the story written out, that it can be recognized if something is copied from it or derived from it, how will I know or ever find out, before it’s too late, that it has been taken, if that happens? This person, who I met at a Meetup group for screenwriters, has actually worked in the editorial department of the animation studio Illumination Mac Guff (Despicable Me (2010), Minions (2015), The Secret Life Of Pets (2016), and others), and is now working somewhere else and also attempts to write screenplays himself, surely has a better chance of getting stories to someone higher up in the making process than I do. And even though the conversation was great in general and I can see him being on my side, and maybe even being a help when that time comes, I have to keep in mind that he could very well be running off with it instead as well. I mean, why not? We all know how scarce great stories are in this industry. And yes, I do consider my story as great, in its potential. Maybe it set off my alarm, because of the way it happened. He told me the plot of a story that he was writing and then asked me to share mine, since he has just shared his. And despite my hesitation, it being the first time that I shared my story with someone other than my friend, I shared what I had so far and my struggles anyways. And then, after a while talking about it, also brainstorming about possibilities, which didn’t lead to any light bulbs, but did broaden my horizon, he went to the bathroom and when he came back, said he had to go, shook everyone’s hand and mine and left. Now, I’m not overly suspicious, but because my alarm was already up, this triggered it even more. Did he just call a friend and say: “hey, I’ve got a great idea?” Was I also cautious because this idea took so long to come to me and I really feel this is a great story that could really be something? And because I was so stuck, and being quite impressed with his work experience, I decided to share it after all.
So, if my work is protected, then why the feeling of worry that someone is running off with it? And why calling the copyright thing a myth then? Well, because stealing ideas and stories still happens every day and in Hollywood perhaps even the most. The quote “better a good copy than a bad original” is still common practice in the film industry, and other industries as well by the way. And why? Because most of the time, they get away with it. Especially the bigger companies who usually have deeper pockets than a screenwriter on his own. And lawsuits can take a long time as well. We all know many films that are so called ‘inspired by’, when that often really means is that they stole the story, either completely or big parts from it. And most of the time, they won’t even mention anything and leave you thinking it’s their own idea. If it weren’t lucrative, then they wouldn’t keep doing it, right?
Then what is the solution to this all? Not share anything at all ever? And when it’s done, then make it yourself? Is that the only rigorous way to prevent this nervous feeling of “will my work get stolen?” and paralyzing you along the way? Because to be quite frank, that’s what happened to me in fact. What was I to do? Sit around and wait for someday something to appear somewhere? That would be ridiculous, since I also have no idea if he did anything with it, even if I were to ask him about it and he would deny it. It annoyed me, because now I felt even more pressure to finish it and do it fast and try to do something with it, get it to somewhere. I don’t want that kind of pressure. Creative writing under pressure is a recipe for disaster. Or better said, a recipe for a blocked mind, for nothing coming out. And that is the last thing I need right now. And because he has a lot more contacts than I do, the chances that he has a hit within his network is big. I’m thinking of the worst case scenario of course. I eventually knew I had to let go and forget about this whole scare and just try to pretend it didn’t happen and for the future decide for myself what it is I want to do with the sharing of my story ideas and stories. Because I don’t want to stay in a cocoon and never talk about any of them before they are finished, even when they will be protected already. But I also don’t want to share before I feel ready. And maybe this all happened because it was the first time I ever shared anything with someone in the industry. And in the writers’ group, more people shared some of their story ideas, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Is this all then an occupational risk you just simply have to take? I mean, what other option is there? One realization just came to mind: the more generic the plot, the less you will have this problem. I’m thinking of the difference between a plot driven story versus a character driven story. The bigger and more specific and special the plot, the more chances people will look at it as ‘it has been done before’. But how many similar character driven stories are there and people won’t think that? That’s right. Many. Because people will always stay interested in people and their behaviour and their relationships with each other. And those kinds of stories can have 1001 variations and still live perfectly side by side with other similar character driven stories. Interesting ‘solution’, don’t you think? Of course it’s not the solution, because there really isn’t a watertight one.
It just is what it is then. That occupational risk. And if you’re wise, you take the necessary precautionary steps you have to take and other than that, ‘just forget about it’. Meaning: don’t let it distract or stop you from writing your stories. Otherwise no stories will be made ever. So there.