How to Copyright a Script

How to Copyright a Script

by Jane Haskins, Esq., September 2015

It took months, but you finally finished your screenplay. You think the movie could be a blockbuster, and you’re eager to start sending your script to producers and agents.

But first, you want to make sure your script doesn’t get stolen. You’ve heard horror stories about aspiring screenwriters who submitted their screenplays and had them rejected – only to see an almost identical movie in theatres a couple of years later.

One way to protect yourself is to copyright a screenplay. Copyright registration creates a record of your ownership and gives you a remedy if you are ever the victim of theft.

What is a Copyright?

A copyright protects original works of authorship, including scripts and screenplays. 

Copyrights cannot protect ideas. That means that a script copyright or screenplay copyright protects a script or screenplay you have written, but it does not protect your general idea or concept for a movie or TV show.

A script has copyright protection as soon as it has been written. The script’s author ordinarily owns the copyright unless it was written as part of the writer’s job or the writer signed a work for hire agreement. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to make and distribute copies of the work, prepare derivative works, and perform and display the work publicly. 

You don’t need to attach a copyright notice to your script for it to receive copyright protection, but a notice can identify the copyright owner and remind others that the work is copyrighted.

Benefits of Script or Screenplay Copyright Registration

Although your script is copyrighted as soon as you write it, registration with the U.S. Copyright Office offers important benefits if someone infringes your copyright.

First, registration creates a public record of your copyright ownership and the date the script was created. 

Second, you must register a copyright in order to sue someone for copyright infringement. If you register it before the infringement occurs, you can recover additional money damages and your attorney’s fees if you win the case. Registration within five years of publication also makes it easier to prove in court that you are the owner of the copyright.

How to Copyright a Script in 5 Steps

Step 1: Log Into the Copyright Office Electronic System (for online registrations)

The copyright office has an online system called eCO that allows you to register your copyright electronically if you are just registering a single work. You can also register your copyright by mail, but electronic registrations cost less and are processed more quickly.

To begin the electronic registration process, you must set up a username and password so you can log into the eCO system. 

Step 2: Complete the application

If you are applying through the eCO system, you will log into the system and complete an application online to copyright script or copyright screenplay. If you are applying by mail, you must download and complete Form PA (for performing arts works).

Step 3: Pay the Fee

Copyright registration currently costs $35-$55 for online applications and $85 for paper applications.

If you are registering a copyright online, you may pay by credit or debit card or by an ACH transfer via Pay.gov. If you register by mail, you can pay by check or money order.

Step 4: Submit a copy of your work.

You must send the copyright office a copy or copies of your script. The method for doing this depends on whether your script is “published” or “unpublished.” Most people who want to copyright a movie script have an “unpublished” script. The script is “published” if you have offered copies of it for sale or rent.

If you file your registration online, you can upload a copy of your unpublished script. Check the copyright office website for information about acceptable file types and size limitations. If you are registering by mail or if your script has been published, you must submit paper copies.

Step 5: Wait for Your Registration to be Processed

If you have submitted an application online, you’ll receive an email confirmation that your application was received. The copyright office does not send confirmations to mail applicants.

You will receive correspondence from the copyright office if there are questions about your application. Otherwise, you can expect to wait several months for a copyright registration if you applied online, and a little over a year if you applied by mail. However, the effective date of registration is the date the copyright office received your completed application, fee, and copies of your work.

Copyrighting a screenplay or TV script is a good way to protect yourself in the event someone tries to steal your original work. Registered copyrights establish a record of your ownership and also give you important rights if you ever need to sue someone for copyright infringement.

When you are ready to copyright a script, LegalZoom makes it easy. Answer some questions about your screenplay in our online questionnaire and we’ll assemble and file the paperwork on your behalf.