Before you start shopping your new script around, it's a good idea to register your copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO). Taking this extra step allows you to officially protect your script from theft, plagiarism, or other forms of infringement.
How does copyright apply to scripts?
A script is a written blueprint of a play, show, or movie. A screenplay, however, has a narrower definition and is limited to television programs and films. While there are subtle differences between a script and a screenplay, the rules and processes for copyrighting each are roughly the same.
Copyrighting is among several categories of intellectual property (IP) protection, similar to trademarks and patents, designed to safeguard your “exclusive right" to claim an original work as your own—for a limited period of time. So long as your work represents the original (and not a reproduction) and has been reduced to a “tangible" or “fixed" form (that is, it has been written on paper, typed electronically, recorded digitally, and so on), the work is granted copyright protection.
At a basic level, copyrighting a creative work—such as a script—has the effect of prohibiting individuals from engaging in copyright infringement or unauthorized use of your script, including intentional and inadvertent copying, publishing, transmitting, exhibiting, distributing, modifying, displaying, or otherwise using—whether for profit or not—the original creative expressions of others.
Why copyright a script?
If someone steals your script or uses it without your permission, you will need to have a copy of the script on file with the USCO to prove that your rights to copyright protection have been violated. Unless and until you copyright your script and have it on file with the USCO, it can be difficult to pursue an infringement action in federal court. Meanwhile, the wrongdoer may profit from plagiarizing your hard work.
A creative work that has been formally granted copyright protection by the USCO is typically identified by the familiar © symbol. You don't need to attach a copyright notice to your script for it to receive copyright protection, but a notice has the effect of identifying the registered copyright owner and informs others that the script is copyrighted. This can typically be accomplished by including the copyright symbol © in the footer of each page.
Benefits of script copyright registration
Although all original works, including scripts, immediately and automatically attain common law copyright status as soon as they are in writing, registering your copyright provides significant benefits. For instance, registration with the USCO extends for the life of the scriptwriter, plus 70 years. Registration creates a public record of your copyright ownership and the date the script was created.
Once your copyrighted script is on file, you can sue to recover monetary damages for any economic loss that may result from the infringement. And, if you register your copyright before the infringement occurs, you can sue for copyright infringement and seek recovery of statutory damages and reimbursement of legal fees.
The basic steps involved in copyrighting a script are:
1. Register your script with the USCO: The USCO offers an online registration system known as “eCO," which permits a scriptwriter to complete the registration process electronically simply by setting up a username and password. And while you may register a copyright by mail, the electronic registration process is faster and less costly.
2. Pay the required fee: Whether you apply online or via paper, copyright registration currently costs less than $100. You can pay by credit, debit, ACH transfer, paper check, or money order.
3. Submit a copy of the script: The USCO requires you to submit a copy of your script by uploading it to the system.
4. 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. In some cases, it may take several months to a year to receive notice that your copyright registration has been approved.