Friday, December 26, 2008
Cover Your Ass: WGA Registration vs. Copyright
Covering Your Ass: Copyright vs. WGA Registration
By Jim Cirile
Writers often ask me how to protect themselves against plagiarism. And for years, I’ve always said the same thing: plagiarism in Hollywood for the most part doesn’t exist, at least not in the way people think. By that I mean, it’s highly unlikely that some producer is going to simply rip off your script and make it into a movie without paying you. Frankly, to do so would be moronic, because they’re opening themselves up to lawsuits and hassles, when instead they could likely option your script for a few bucks up front and then purchase it outright if and when the production money comes in. So why steal? Further, lots of times when we think someone ‘stole our idea,’ it may just be because with 100,000 screenwriters in LA, there’s bound to be some similar concepts floating around out there at any given time. I learned this the hard way a decade ago when sending out REBIRTH, my spec thriller about cloning Jesus from blood stains on the Shroud of Turin--only to discover there were no less than six others already out there with the exact same @^$*@!!^! idea.
But I’m quick to follow this up with explaining the REAL way plagiarism often happens. It’s like this: your script goes out to producers or the studios in some significant way--either from an agent sending it around as a spec or maybe a producer slipping it into his VP connex at the studios. This is where things get a bit tricky. If you get some meet n’ greet meetings, you’ll likely wind up telling the exec all about the projects you’re working on. The exec will generally have an assistant right there beside him taking shorthand. Fast forward six months, and that exec is meeting a different writer, and said writer pitches an idea the exec sparks to. So the exec says, “Hey, that’s pretty cool, but how about if the robot porcupine actually has the personality of a scared little boy because his creator was trying to emulate natural emotional growth in the robot -- before the asteroid hit the starbase and killed everyone?” And so that writer takes the note and incorporates this idea into the movie. Except that it was YOUR idea. The exec forgot where he heard it in the first place and innocently suggests it as a story beat in a different movie. The movie gets made; the other writer gets all the credit; no soup for YOU.
This scenario just happened to me. Back in ’04 my partner and I wrote a spec comedy. A producer friend jumped on board and sent it to several studios he had a relationship with. Unfortunately, everyone passed. Oh, well. Another day in LA. But late 2008, I take my daughter to a matinee, and my jaw hits the nasty, Wrigley’s-and-artificial-butter topping-shellacked floor as I watched MY main character from MY spec utilized as a second fiddle character in this hit movie. Oh, this was a rip-off folks, flat-out. The whole characterization, backstory, every single thing about this character was a Direct Steal. No possible way this could be coincidence. There is even *a 2-minute sequence in the movie that is shot-for-shot exactly what we wrote.*
Obviously my first call was to my producer friend, who told me that he had indeed submitted our script to a VP at that studio in 2004--the same year another writer set up the pitch that eventually became the 2008 hit movie for the studio. (The studio had said our project was “too similar to something they already had in development” when they passed.) Next call was to my attorney, the amazing Mark Temple. Temple set us up on a conference call with a copyright lawyer associate to discuss how best to proceed. And here is where I learned a hard lesson.
You see, we stupidly had never copyrighted our spec script. Oh, I had registered it with the WGA and had the certificate in hand, thinking that’s good enough. BZZZ. See, according to the attorneys, you are only entitled to statutory damages and attorney’s fees in a proceeding if you have copyright. Without that, most attorneys cannot be bothered to take your case, because the upside is not there for them (statutory damages could net you from $150K to $750K or more.) WGA registration gives you NO LEGAL STANDING. I then got a lecture from both attorneys about how useless WGA registration is and imploring me to ALWAYS COPYRIGHT EVERYTHING.
So where does that leave us? To his credit, Temple was willing to explore other options, but to do so we would need a copy of the other project’s script from 2004. If we can prove the character in question did not exist in that script in 2004, we have a case and could possibly go after the studio for a small settlement (“Get lost” money.) Of course, since that other project sold as a pitch, there *was* no script. Dead again. We still have a few more options… but it may be that we simply have to do what all writers in Hollywood have to learn to do--take that paddle to the ass, smile and say, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” But learn well from my mistake. Copyright your material.
Note: this from the WGA Script Registration page: “The Writers Guild of America, West Registry has been the industry standard in the creation of legal evidence for the protection of writers and their work. When you register your script prior to submitting it to agents, managers, or producers, you document your authorship on a given date should there be unauthorized usage.” Hmm...
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