What is Copyright? Originally designed to protect printed material from being copied without permission, the copyright laws have now extended to include any original work created by an individual, giving that creator exclusive rights to control that material.
An original work of art, such as a video, music, screenplay, or script, is automatically protected by the laws of the U.S. Code, title 17 as soon as you create the work. However, for added protection, you should place a copyright notice on your script and register it in the U.S. Copyright Office because that registration is necessary to bringing a lawsuit for copyright infringement. The so-called "poor man's copyright" - mailing a copy of your work to yourself to obtain a postage date - is not adequate to secure registration, and cannot be used in a court of law to support a case o f copyright infringement.
Once you've created your work, only you as the copyright owner, can give permission to others to copy the work, to distribute copies of the work by sale, rent, lease, or other transfer of ownership, to prepare derivative works based upon the work (i.e., make a movie, say, derived from your script), or to perform the work publicly. You also have the rights to deny anyone copying your work by refusing to license it therefore exclusively keeping all copyright rights for yourself. If someone copies your work without your permission, you can bring a lawsuit against them for copyright infringement. The court, using its discretion, can award you up to $150,000 in statutory damages if someone willfully infringes your copyrighted work.
Now, a friendly word of advice: copyright law is serious business. Do not copy another's script or play or any part of it or make another work that is derived from it (a "derivative" work) unless you have the copyright holder's permission. Just because it's easy to copy the works of others, via computers, video and audio recording devices, photocopiers and the Internet, doesn't make it lawful to do so.
The Copyright Symbol and Notice - What, Where and When
Even though copyright law automatically and immediately protects your work, it is a good idea to place a copyright symbol and notice on it as soon as you create it. If you provide this notice on your script, an infringer will be liable for all actual or statutory damages before receiving actual notice of your copyright registration. Make sure to place the copyright notice on your work when you create it and make sure the copyright notice appears on all of your copies, too.
You do not need special permission to print the copyright notice on your script. Do it yourself when you write the first version and every subsequent version of your script. The notice should contain 1) the encircled "c" ("©") symbol or the word "Copyright" or the abbreviation "Copr."; 2) the year of first publication of the script or the year you wrote the script; and 3) a form of your name or the name you wish to use. Simply choose one of these forms of the copyright notice:
- © Mark Levy 2012
- Copr. M. Levy 2012
- Copyright Mark Levy MMXII
You must use all three components of the notice (the copyright word, abbreviation, or symbol; your name; and the year date) on one line for the notice to be effective. Using the copyright symbol © by itself is incomplete and defective notice and does no good.
The copyright notice is just that. It gives notice to the public that you own your script. There is no such thing as providing too much notice. For videos, you should place the notice onscreen at or close to the beginning of the video or at the end, not hidden somewhere in the middle. You should also include the notice on your DVD labels and on the jewel box, case, or sleeve that holds your video.
How to Copyright a Script
You have a number of options for registering your copyright. You will need a copy of your work to submit for registration. If your work is a written script or a treatment, for example, send a written copy of it; and if your work is a complete video, send a videotape or DVD. You can register online using the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO), you can prepare the application online and mail in the copy of your work to be registered or you can register by mail. More information can be found on the Copyright Office website: www.copyright.gov.
Registering online is available for basic works that are published electronically, such as literary works, visual arts works, performing arts works, and sound recordings. To register online, go to www.copyright.gov and click on "eCO Login," follow the links to the eCO Login page, and then click on the link for a new user. You will then be required to set up an account and log on to the eCO system. Once you are logged into the system, click on "Register a New Claim." You will then navigate through a series of screens that will require you to enter information. Once you have completed the form, you will be prompted to submit payment online and upload a digital copy of your work. The fee to file the application online is only $35 and protects your script for your entire life plus 70 years, making this one of the best legal bargains imaginable. Filing online provides the fastest processing time and allows you to track the status of your application.
You can also prepare the application online by going to www.copyright.gov and clicking on "Forms," clicking on "Form CO" under option 2, and then clicking on "Download Form CO,".
The instructions for filling out the form can be found at www.copyright.gov/forms/formco2d-ins.pdf . This form is universal: it is the same form used to register any sort of copyrightable material. Fill out the form, then print the completed form and a shipping slip to be attached to your work for sending through the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). The fee for this hardcopy filing is $50.
Finally, you can prepare the application on a paper (hardcopy) form and mail the application and your work through the USPS. The Copyright Office has separate divisions for different types of works. Various types of copyright forms exist to simplify the job of registering the different types of works. Here are the most frequently used forms and their purpose:
Form TX (Text): Includes stories, novels, poems, treatments and outlines in written form on paper. Titles, names, slogans and short phrases are not protected under the copyright law but are protected under trademark law.
Form PA (Performing Arts): This form is used for dramatic works, plays, scripts, motion pictures and other audiovisual works on videotapes and DVDs.
Paper forms are not accessible online, but can be requested by contacting the U.S. Copyright Office by telephone at (202) 707-5959 or 1-877-476-0778 (toll free), or you can request the forms online at www.copyright.gov/forms/formrequest.html. Prepare the forms following the instructions provided and mail the form, payment, and a copy of your work to the address provided on the form. Since the Copyright Office receives more than 50,000 copyright applications each month, you may wish to send your envelope certified, with a return receipt requested, so you know when the Copyright Office receives your materials.
Wondering how to copyright a name or how to copyright a phrase? You can't. The United States copyright law does not protect titles, names, short phrases, slogans, symbols or designs. These are covered under Trademark Law. Works that are not fixed in a tangible medium of expression - such as improvisational works or spontaneous speeches - are not protected under copyright law.
Now that you have everything you need to know about protecting your original work under the Copyright Act, you're all set. You can start copyrighting your work. That's the good news. The bad news (for us copyright lawyers) is that you no longer need an attorney's services.
Writers Guild of America (WGA) Registrations
The Writers Guild of America is a group made up of two different labor unions: The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) (www.wgaeast.org), representing TV and film writers living east of the Mississippi River, and the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) (www.wga.org), representing TV and film writers living west of the Mississippi River, including Hollywood and Southern California. The WGA helps creators in establishing the completion date of material written for audio and video, such as scripts and video specifically intended for radio, TV and film, video cassettes/discs, or interactive media. The WGA also registers stageplays, novels and other books, short stories, poems, commercials, lyrics, drawings, music and other media work. Registering with the WGA records the creator's claim to authorship of their work. Registrations are valid for five years, and then can be renewed for additional five-year increments.
The fee for registration with the WGAW (West) is $10 for members and $20 for non members. The fee for registration with the WGAE (East) is $10 for members, $22 for non members, and $17 for students. You can register online at the appropriate WGA website for the corresponding region, or you can register by mail or in person.
To register by mail or in person with the WGAW, you can send one unbound copy of your material printed on paper no larger than 8.5x 11-inch with a cover sheet attached and the appropriate fee to the mailing address below. The cover sheet should contain the title of the material, the writer's full legal name, social security number, email address, and phone number, along with a return address.
7000 W. Third Street
Los Angeles, CA 90048
Upon receipt, the WGAW will seal your submission in an envelope and record the date and time. A numbered certificate which serves as the official registration document will be returned to the address provided.
To register by mail or in person with the WGAE, you can request a registration envelope by sending a 9x12-inch self addressed stamped envelope with $1.08 postage to the address below. You will then place one unbound copy of your material printed on paper no larger than 8.5x11-inch into the registration envelope. The envelope should be marked "Registration envelope sealed by:" and signed by the writers using their legal name. The envelope should then be put into a larger envelope with the appropriate fee attached to the front, and then may be either mailed or delivered in person to the WGAE office at the address below:
Writers Guild of America, East, Inc.
250 Hudson Street
New York, New York, 10013
Upon receipt, the WGAE will date the envelope and assign a registration number, and then issue you a receipt.
Sidebar Disclaimer: Legal Information Is Not Legal Advice
This article provides information about the law designed to help video producers cope with their own legal needs. But legal information is not the same as legal advice - the application of law to an individual's specific circumstances. Videomaker does not provide legal services or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a lawyer if you want professional assurance that our information, and your interpretation of it, is appropriate to your particular situation.
Contributing editor Attorney Mark Levy specializes in intellectual property law. He has won many amateur moviemaking awards. Amy Manzer is a paralegal at Hinman, Howard & Kattell concentrating in intellectual property rights.