Note: This relates to UK law and copyright differs in each country.
The basics of copyright are…
Copyright is created automatically whenever you create a piece of work. The copyright to these words you’re reading now was established the moment I typed them.
Copyright does not protect ideas, just the ‘expression’ of those ideas. this means that no-one can say that they own the idea of a horror film where six kids go into the woods and are killed. This is far too vague an idea to be protected. However, if I were to write an entire feature film screenplay based on that concept then the screenplay would have enough ‘protectable elements’ to be covered by copyright protection. These elements are things which can be measured and the sum total of which make up the unique elements of my script. In US law they define these ‘protectable elements’ to include plot, theme, dialogue, mood, setting, pace, and sequence.
Every country has their own copyright rules. There have been international treaties and agreements to try to standardise copyright around the world but each country has their own interpretations, landmark cases and unique laws. this presents a challenge for a global business, such as film, and so the industry tends to play it safe.
You can’t copyright a fact. Only fiction is covered by copyright and so no-one can stop you using certain facts in your script or film. This was most dramatically illustrated a few years ago when Dan Brown was sued by the authors of a book called ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’ for similarities to his book ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Despite the fact that both books have quite a lot in common, the lawsuit failed. The authors of ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’ had claimed that their book was based on fact and therefore the judge ruled that as facts cannot be copyrighted there was no claim. However, there are other laws which you may need to consider when presenting true life stories, such as Passing Off and Defamation.
Copyright also covers speeches, meaning that if you are going to tell a true-life story then you may have problems using long passages of speeches from your subject. For example, if you wish to quote speeches by Sir Winston Churchill you need to pay his estate £175 per 1,000 words, while the estate of Martin Luther King Jr is far less amenable.
Copyright is not just for written works – it’s for all artistic creations, which can include work performed by almost any member of your cast and crew. Therefore, every contract you present to employees and freelancers should take into account if their contribution is protected by copyright laws. If it is, then they need to assign their copyright to you / your company.
Copyright can be assigned to other people. Not only do you need permission to use the copyright created by every member of the cast and crew, you also need to be able to pass on that right. If you didn’t then the Odeon would not have the right to screen the film. This is called assignment of rights and is at the very heart of the paperwork trail of making a film.
When the writer creates the script they own the copyright. As part of your contract with them, you will need them to pass the copyright onto you and to allow you to pass it on to third parties.
Registering your movie script
In order to be able to prove that someone has infringed your copyright, you will need to prove that you wrote the script before they did. This is achieved by registering the script with a trustworthy third party who can testify in court if needed. Lawyers can be used for this purpose but most writers use industry registration services. Here are a few;