How to Legally Protect a Movie Idea
Sick of your current day job, the office memos, stress of traffic, crunching numbers, you decide to quit and follow your dream of becoming a writer. A risky move, but you decide to bet on yourself, your collective experiences, knowledge, and passion and give it a shot. What follows is hair pulling, exhausting hard work to simply come up with an idea: what should I create? After a year’s worth of chicken scratch on crumpled paper thrown away, it hits you and you’re off developing possible characters, stories, visuals, dialogue.
When everything is wrapped up, a cohesive, perfect idea crafted, you decide this development is meant for television. After pitch meeting upon pitch meeting, however, you are left high and dry. One producer mentioned what a good idea it was, but ultimately passed on it. Back to square one.
A year later, you are sitting on your couch mindlessly watching what, to some, is apparently palatable television. This sting of knowing that your idea was better than any of these run of the mill concepts hits hard. But then something happens. It’s your show. It’s your idea, being brought to life on the small screen. There are your characters, the scenes you crafted, the structure you created.
Unfortunately, in Hollywood, idea theft is a serious problem. Enormously successful films such as “Pirates of the Caribbean, “The Matrix,” “The Last Samurai,” and “The Purge” all have been challenged by lawsuits claiming idea theft. However, actually proving copyright infringement in court is notoriously difficult. Plaintiffs are expected to show substantial similarity in expression rather than mere harmony in general concepts. A simple tweak of a few concepts embedded in an idea proves fatal to the plaintiff in a copyright infringement case.
So, as a creator, how do you protect your ideas?
Develop Your Idea
One thing that case law has made abundantly clear is the less developed an idea, the more difficult it is to protect. In the 2015 case Williams v. A&E TV Networks, the plaintiff was unable to establish a successful copyright infringement claim revolving around his series treatment for a reality show “Married at 1st Sight.” The series treatment outlined how contestants were to be paired up, marry each other after one date, and tasked with living together for six months for the potential of winning various prizes including $250,000. Three years later, A&E premiered the reality TV show “Married at First Sight,” where couples chosen by a team of experts are introduced for the very first time at their wedding and ultimately have to decide whether or not to stayed married at the end of six weeks. To the average person, the similarities between the two show concepts are striking. To the court, not so much.
In comparison, while the court in Castorina v. Spike Cable Networks found certain stock ideas in the Plaintiff’s series treatment for a competition show where amateur athletes attempt to prove their worth against professional athletes unprotectable, specific details in the treatment were deemed worthy of protection. The court emphasized how the compilation, arrangement, and selection of original elements would be protectable. These elements included the inclusion of “fake, goofball” competitors within the sports show, one host described as an “ex law enforcement officer, federal agent, with a masters degree in Social Work” who would use his background to manipulate the other host, and specific competitor tests for “well-roundedness” including singing “ala American Idol.”
It may not seem important when all you want to do is get your idea off of the ground, but before you pitch an “idea” to someone make sure that idea is sufficiently fleshed out to amount to a protectable piece of intellectual property.
Registration of your work with the United States Copyright Office, the Writers Guild of America, and other similar entities establishes a public record of possession and acts as evidence for the date of creation. Registration creates a legal presumption that your copyright in the work is valid, as well. Additionally, registering your copyright with the US Copyright Office preserves your right to sue infringers and collect damages and attorney’s fees if your suit is successful.
Include IP Clauses in Contracts
When working on developing an idea within an established business, any creative contribution by an employee will usually belong to the employer. However, it is a good idea to include clauses regarding intellectual property and confidentiality in employment contracts. Outlining who will retain the rights to specific creations is paramount in order to avoid lengthy and costly litigation.
Research the Recipients
Regardless of what type of business you are in, it is always a good idea to know who you are dealing with before showing all of your cards. Research who you want to work with and who you want to pitch your idea to in order to discover their reputation within the industry. This will inherently aid you in discovering how to pitch to that person, as well.
Submit Your Ideas Through the Appropriate Channels and Document Your Discussions
When you start pitching your idea to studios, producers, executives, etc., it is in your best interest to keep detailed notes and records of those meetings. Keeping a log of who you pitch to, the name of the person, their position, company, and date are all key elements if it later comes down to an infringement case. Similar to copyright registration, these types of notes create a recorded timeline of when your idea was submitted and who it was submitted to in order to guard against idea theft.