When working collaboratively on a script, it may be tempting to forego a collaboration agreement when you're in the white heat of creative frenzy. The best advice for scriptwriters working together on a project, however, is to have a properly drafted collaboration agreement in place before you even think about typing the words "FADE IN."
Collaboration as a joint work
It can seem strange to be dealing with legal matters when your collaborative project is little more than a one-line idea penned over drinks one night. You and your writing partner may feel particularly resistant to drawing up a collaboration agreement, especially if you've known each other for a long time. But the reality is, you never know what might happen down the road, so it always paid to be prepared.
When you collaborate on a creative project with someone, whether it's a screenplay, a book, or some other work of art, under the rules of copyright, your collaborative project is considered a joint work. And unless there's an agreement stating otherwise, you and your writing partners co-own the copyright to that work.
Although this might sound quite fair, consider a scenario where you get multiple offers for your spec script. Without an agreement in place that talks about decision making, a number of conflicts could arise. For example, if you can't come to an agreement as to which offer is best for your script, you'll be in a stalemate unless one of you budges. And while you're trying to come to an agreement, some of those offers might get withdrawn.
The screenplay collaboration agreement
Luckily, screenplay collaboration agreements are not super-complex creatures. Most such documents share some common, necessary elements, which include:
- Who does what. Just like any contract, there should be a section in your agreement that outlines each person's duties and responsibilities. Be as specific as possible. For example, one partner might be responsible for the first draft, while the other partner will tackle the first rewrite. Or you might each be responsible for different scenes. There are many variations when it comes to how the workload might be split up. The important point is to describe what each party is responsible for, as fully as you can.
- Compensation. Whether you've decided to do a 50/50 split or some other method of divvying up the income from selling your script, make sure the terms are clearly spelled out, as well as other income matters. For example, deals for screenplays don't usually involve royalties but sometimes include a percentage of profits. In other cases, residuals, or payments for the reuse of your work, might be on the table. Be clear about how income, from whatever source, will be divided.
- Credits. This might seem trivial, but how screenwriting partners are credited in the final product has been known to wrench apart potentially great writing duos. So be specific about the order in which your names will appear.
- Termination. This all-important section should cover what happens if, for whatever reason, one partner is unable to continue working on the project. For example, if one writer has to terminate their participation due to an illness or disability, your collaboration agreement might specify that the other partner can continue to work on the project but that the terminating partner (or that partner's estate) will be entitled to a certain percentage of future profits.
- Approval and decision making. Spell out what happens when vital decisions need to be made. You and your partner could share equally in the decision making or one partner could have the final say.
- Dispute resolution. Of course, you and your co-writer aren't entering into this agreement thinking that you'll end up fighting, but collaboration agreements should always include a section on how disputes are resolved. Whether you choose to go through mediation, arbitration, or perhaps even the courts, this section is where you should specify what happens when you and your partner fail to see eye to eye on a matter.
Even though you're starting your collaborative partnership with the best intentions, situations can go awry. Having a collaborative agreement can help you and your partner avoid or reduce the conflict that can happen when a partnership doesn't go quite as planned.