There is no absolute method of protecting your ideas or screenplays. There are however, a number of steps you can take to give yourself the maximum protection possible.

Ideas and loglines are the written material that are the least protect-able. I recommend expanding any story idea you are planning to pitch to a three- to five-page treatment.  Then register that treatment with the Writers Guild.  The longer the material, the more protection you have.  Treatments are more protect-able than story ideas.  Screenplays are more protect-able than treatments.  All screenplays, treatments, Movies-of-the-Week and television pilots should be registered with the Writers Guild of America West or East.  Registration can be done in person, by mail, or online.

Writers should also take a journal with them to all pitch meetings.  The journal should include the date, name of the people at the meeting, and a list of all the projects they pitched.

Before you’re pitching your projects in a one-on-one pitching session, you should mention to the person you’re pitching to that all your projects are registered with the Writers Guild … even if not all of them are registered.  If you then get interest in one of your projects, then quickly register it online to cover yourself.

You should also get in the habit of sending a thank you note by email after every meeting. Mention the names of all the projects you pitched to that company and keep a copy for your records. Save all rejection letters, as well.  The journal, thank you emails, and rejection letters are the beginning of a paper trail, which can help to keep your material from being stolen.

In the event you believe that your material has been stolen, you have to prove two things: similarity and access. Similarity means that your script is almost identical to the material you claim was stolen. Keep in mind that there are hundreds of thousands of scripts that have been registered that, by coincidence, could be similar in to your script. Access means that you have concrete proof that a company or studio had direct access to your material.

If you move forward with your claim, you’ll have to hire an attorney to represent you in litigation, which will be an expensive proposition for you.  Be aware: the results are almost always the same.  The writer claiming theft loses a costly court battle and is blacklisted for life.

Theft is not as prevalent as most writers perceive, especially in the movie business.  It’s a little more prevalent in television, since it’s such an imitative medium. There’s an old expression in Hollywood, “You’re not going to get screwed by people stealing from you. You’re going to get screwed by people making a deal with you.”

Read Steve on Screenwriting the first Thursday of the month on Write On! Online.

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