How to Copyright A Movie or Short Film

How to Copyright A Movie or Short Film

by Jane Haskins, Esq., October 2015

A motion picture copyright protects the artistic expression in movies, short films and videos, including the camera work, dialogue and sounds.  It does not cover the idea behind a movie or the characters portrayed in it.  Three things are required for a motion picture to be eligible for copyright protection:

•    It must be an original work of authorship.  That means that the artistic elements of the motion picture must have originated with you.

•    It must be a series of related images that, when viewed together, give an impression of motion, along with any accompanying sounds.  Treatments and screenplays are not eligible for copyright protection as motion pictures, but they may be protected as dramatic works.
•    It must be fixed in a physical object such as film, videotape or digital media. 

When Does Copyright Protection Begin?

A movie is copyrighted as soon as it has been created and fixed in a tangible object.  It does not need to include a copyright notice or be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive copyright protection.

Rights Protected by Copyright

A motion picture copyright owner has the exclusive right to make copies, to sell or distribute copies, to perform the work by showing it in a movie theater or other venue, to prepare derivative works and to publicly display individual images from the motion picture. 

Who Owns the Copyright to Your Movie?

Movies are usually collaborative efforts – you might have had the original idea and directed the movie, but other people wrote the script, choreographed a dance, or wrote some background music. While you may own the copyright to the motion picture, other people will own the copyrights to the individual elements they created. This means that you will have to obtain their permission before you can exhibit, sell or distribute your movie. 

  •    If your movie was made by your regular employees as part of their job, such as a short film made by employees of an independent animation studio, you or your business will own the copyright to all the copyrightable elements of the movie.

•    If your motion picture will include contributions from freelancers or other people who are not your regular employees, you can acquire the copyright to their copyrightable contributions by having them sign work for hire agreements or agreements that assign all or part of the copyrights to you.  These agreements are typically prepared by an attorney and are often required by film financers and distributors.

Why Should You Register a Copyright?

There are several important advantages to registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, including:  

•    Registration creates a record of your copyright ownership.
•    Registration is necessary before you can sue someone for copyright infringement.
•    If you register your copyright within three months of publication or before an infringement occurs, you can recover statutory damages and attorneys fees if you sue someone for copyright infringement.  You can receive statutory damages without having to prove the infringer’s profits or your financial loss. 
•    If you register your copyright, you can also register with the U.S. Customs Service to receive protection against imports of infringing copies.

Registration Procedures and Deposit Requirements

To register a copyright, you must deposit three things with the U.S. Copyright Office:

•    A completed application form, submitted online or by mail. Online applications have faster processing times.
•    A filing fee for online applications or paper applications.
•    A copy of your movie, short film or video and a separate description of its general nature and content.  Different deposit requirements apply to individual elements of a movie.  The copyright office website has additional details about what you must submit and the format it must be in.

LegalZoom will help you register a copyright for your movie, short film, or other creative work. Use our online questionaire to answer some questions about your work, and we'll use those answers to file all the paperwork you need to apply for your registration.