Protecting Your Work
July 28, 2007
Have you ever worked on something, whether it be a school report or cleaning the house as a surprise for your mom, only to have some greedy, dishonest person take the credit for it. When it comes to artistic works, you don't want to let them get away with it. They'll end up taking your glory as well as your money. It sounds like paranoia, but it's probably in your best interest to trust no one.
Keep Your Mouth Shut
I know you're excited about the latest masterpiece you're working on, but keep it to yourself. Don't say a word about it to anyone unless you have a contract with that person. Ok, so you probably can show it to your spouse, your kids, some friends, and such, but certainly don't share it with anyone you don't know very well or don't thoroughly trust.
Even just sharing a description of your plot or characters with another aspiring writer whom you don't trust could create an opportunity for that less creative writer to steal your plot or characters. (Since ideas aren't copyrightable, other people can legally steal them.)
Before you start submitting or even talking about your work to anyone (e.g. agents, production companies, publishers, etc.), register your work.
Start by registering your work with the US Copyright Office. The effective date of registration is when the copyright office gets all required material for the registration (typically the application, a non-returnable copy of the work, and your registration fee).
If you are trying to sell a script, register your script with the Writers Guild of America West or Writers Guild of America East. It's faster because you can do it online rather than through the mail, so the effective date of registration is immediate, and you don't have to wait for the application process to finish (which can be weeks through the US Copyright Office) to get certification of registration. Getting things done quickly is important in the entertainment industry.
Keep a log of when you submitted something, whom you submitted it to, and any communication you have with them, including what was said. You want to be sure that during a lawsuit you can point to the day that Joe Schmoe got a copy of your work if he happens to copy it and take credit for the whole thing. It will also help protect yourself if somebody accuses you of stealing their work.