What's Legal: Protecting an Idea

An idea can go only so far unless it is acted on. Today, however, before acting on an idea, it is increasingly important for you to protect it legally. As you may know, the Copyright law allows you, the creator of an original work, to protect it. You can use the law to prevent others from copying your work or from making other works that are derived from yours. But, the Copyright law cannot protect your idea, only the way the idea is expressed.

Coming to America, the 1988 major motion picture starring comedian Eddie Murphy, has a not-so-funny history involving the legal protection of an idea. In 1982, Art Buchwald wrote an eight-page treatment for a movie and subsequently pitched the idea to Paramount Pictures. Before suggesting the movie idea to Paramount, however, Buchwald registered his treatment with the Writers Guild of America (WGA). The idea concerned a rich African man ending up in a Washington, D.C. ghetto, finding a lower-class African-American woman whom he ultimately marries, and living happily ever after.

Years after rejecting Buchwald’s project, Paramount released Coming to America with a virtually identical story including a wealthy African prince who is robbed in the slums of Queens, New York, but discovers his true love – a daughter of a fast-food restaurant owner, whom he ultimately marries. In the case of Buchwald v. Paramount Pictures Corp (Cal. Super. Ct., 1990), Art Buchwald sued Paramount for breach of contract. Buchwald was not even credited for this screenplay, but he won the case.

The case was based on breach of contract, but Buchwald’s registration of his treatment with the Writers Guild of America could have been used to show that Buchwald created the document and that he originated the basic idea.

The Writers Guild of America is a labor union that represents writers in motion pictures, television, cable, new media, and broadcast news. The WGA consists of two foundations: WGA East and WGA West, the line between the two being the Mississippi River. The mission of the WGA foundations is to spread “the art and craft of storytelling, either by professionals or amateurs, through education and practical experience, on local, national and global levels; to find the next generation of writers in fiction, non-fiction, television, radio, film, theatre, and new media.”

One of the most important services the WGA foundations offer is a registration service that protects a writer’s claim of priority of ownership. As a screenwriter, you should register your works either in the U.S. Copyright Office, or with the WGA, or both, before showing it to other parties, such as movie studios, producers, agents, actors, broadcasters, etc. If you are a WGA member or a non-member and you register a creative work, you are issued a Certificate of Registration by the WGA with the title of the work, the registration number, the date of registration and the expiration date. The WGA protects your registered work for ten years in the east or five years in the west. The current WGA registration fee is $10 ($22 for non-members), but check the WGA websites wga.org and wgaeast.org for fee updates. You can renew your registration before the expiration date by resubmitting the application to the appropriate WGA office with a renewal fee.

Types of creative works that you can register include manuscripts, synopses, outlines, ideas, treatments and scenarios, among others. Of course the WGA does not claim ownership to your work, and does not distribute, display, or use the work in any way. The registration of your work with the WGA does not protect your titles, either. In registering a property, you authorize the WGA to destroy any unclaimed literary property at the end of the period unless you renew the registration.

It is important to note that registering a literary creative work does not provide any statutory protection, but it is evidence that on a particular date you had a prior claim to authorship of the literary material. If needed, the WGA may produce the registered material to prove your legal ownership, which may be helpful in the event your creative work is used without your consent and without due recognition.

Artists sometimes falsely assume that a copyright will effectively protect their concepts, such as treatments or story lines. However, a copyright protects only the expression of an idea; that is, the actual words, sketches, or music used to express the idea, rather than the idea itself. If Art Buchwald had only registered his original treatment with the Copyright Office, this would have prohibited Paramount Pictures from using his text and dialogue, but allowed the studio to use the idea itself. It is just as important, if not more important, to register with the WGA so that your entire idea or concept – and not just the expression of it – is protected.

Knowing the law is generally not the first thing artists think of when creating and distributing their work. However, the law gives you the comfort of knowing that your ideas will not be stolen or mistreated. Anything from a treatment to a full script may be stolen and, as Art Buchwald’s three-year trial shows, it may be quite taxing to get your ideas back. The WGA provides a legal service that is important and relatively inexpensive, and might, in the end, save your work if that work falls into the wrong hands.

Contributing editor Attorney Mark Levy specializes in intellectual property law. He has won many amateur moviemaking awards.

Roman Zelichenko holds a dual degree: a B.S. in Financial
Economics, and a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics and Law.

Dilafruz Sultanova will also earn a dual degree in December,
2010: a B.S. in Accounting; and a B.A. in Political Science.
All courses of study were taken at Binghamton University.