IP Protection: 5 Need-To-Know Tips To Theft-Proof Your Concepts & Scripts

What do Avatar, Coming To America, The Matrix, Animal House, Frozen, Titanic and 12 Years A Slave all have in common?

Believe it or not, each of these popular, blockbuster films was sued for Copyright infringement.

That’s right; each of these films’ producers, film companies and directors were taken to court because someone felt that their idea had been blatantly and outright stolen by them.

Yes, even James Cameron has been sued multiple times over claims that both those blue people in Avatar and the doomed souls in Titanic were not original ideas, but rather concepts based on other peoples’ treatments that had been previously submitted to the Mr. Cameron.

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There were millions of dollars on the line, but in nearly each instance, the plaintiffs lost because the courts ruled that they couldn’t prove that their intellectual property was “created” before James Cameron had either devised his concept or adapted his idea from another source.

In other words, many of the plaintiffs hadn’t properly—or in a timely fashion—registered their original ideas before they sued for infringement.

That’s why everyone should be familiar with Copyright or WGA registration. Copyright & WGA is still the most respected, tried and true, legally binding process of IP protection one’s script, treatment, synopsis or idea. In this day and age, you can’t break into Hollywood without ‘real protection’.

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Here’s another example: “Original Content” can also refer to patents held on the actual “title” of your company or “tech software”.

In 2012, tech giants Facebook and Yahoo became ‘interactive’ with another one and locked horns when Yahoo sued Facebook claiming that the social media behemoth had infringed on 10 of its patents related to messaging and social networking, advertising, customization and privacy. The lawsuit was settled before going to trial and both companies ended up licensing one another’s software.

Both sides were legally satisfied in the end, but for those of us who don’t have a powerhouse legal team in our corner or access to millions of dollars, many just don’t have the means to take costly action.

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This is not meant to discourage you from revealing your genius to the world. But this is the digital age where anything and everything is accessible, searchable and shareable. So it’s crucial that your intellectual property is protected; whether it’s a concept, script, treatment, synopsis, social media app, or the next big app.

Here are MoreMentum’s “Top 5” must-dos to help you protect your creative material or original concept from being stolen

How To Protect Your Intellectual Property

  1. LAY THE GROUNDWORK – Thoroughly researching your concept before moving forward with developing it on paper is crucial. In other words, do your due diligence and search the internet to see if your concept, concept title, or overall idea has ever been conceived, produced or discussed by other people who could potentially sue you for plagiarism if your idea appears to be too similar to theirs. (You can also search the U.S. Copyright office for registered works.)  We would all like to believe that our stories or ideas have never been thought of before in the history of the universe, but as the Bible verse (Ecclesiastes, 1:9) says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun.” Your own creative belief system should encompass that indeed there is “nothing new under the sun”, so your idea better have a unique spin. For instance, if your concept is about a “cowboy with vengeance on his mind,” then you’re going to have to work a little harder to make it standout from the hundreds of iconic westerns with similar premises. On the other hand, if your idea is about an “astronaut with vengeance on his mind,” then you may not have to work nearly as hard at shooting for the stars. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself…so, sue me! [Kidding])

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  1. KNOW YOUR IDEA’S VALUE – Having a great idea is a lot like owning a priceless diamond and in both instances, the property needs to be handled carefully and properly protected. In the diamond’s case, security comes in the form of a really strong safe deposit box along with an airtight insurance policy. In the case of your original idea, the best way to initially secure your concept is by not over-sharing. In other words, it’s better to be safe than I know you’re excited and you want everyone to read your synopsis, treatment or script, but just remember that once you email your story to a friend, you no longer have control over what happens to your idea after that. Think about it, would you give a friend your precious diamond to hold onto for the weekend, just so they could get a better look at it? Of course not! If anything happened to your diamond, you best believe it would become a ‘blood diamond’ and all Hades would break loose. Never allow that diamond to leave your line-of-sight! That’s exactly how you have to start treating your original content, like the valuable, proprietary property that it is.

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  1. DON’T OVERSHARE – I know you’re excited, but be extremely careful about sharing your idea with too many people. Once your original content is out there in the ethos, you will no longer have control over who can touch it. What if someone working at a production company just so happens to read your amazing idea on your Facebook page or via an excited Tweet that you sent out right after completing your, say, script. Once these people (or anyone for that matter) read your story, it’s now tucked away in their subconscious and one day, they may innocently conceive of another idea that just so happens to sound a lot like yours. Now, they have probably forgotten all about your concept—which was their initial influence—but in their minds, they actually believe that their version was an original idea; when in fact, it may have been sparked by your original concept. It’s called “idea bleed” meaning, the lines begin to blur and it becomes relatively impossible to prove exactly what influence, if any, your original content actually had in the big scheme of things.

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For example – Tropic Thunder starring Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, etc. – the plotline was paper thin, but the glaring fact was that it was a brilliant parody of both war movies and the Hollywood filmmaking process. I wasn’t in the room when Ben Stiller pitched this novel concept, but I bet he probably kept the details of three highly proprietary aspects of the film out of his initial meetings until the deal was almost sealed. Those three key plot twists being: a) Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface; b) Ben Stiller as Simple Jack; and c) Tom Cruise in a fat suit and bald wig. It sounds crazy…but it worked, and it made everyone a ton of money. So, when sharing with friends, or even pitching to Hollywood, just be careful not to give away too much of the key plot points that give your concept a creative edge. Like any good reveal, every very last detail can be spelled out when your idea is elevated to the next level of development.

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  1. USE A NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT (NDA) – An NDA (also referred to as a confidentiality agreement) is an IP protection tool that you can use to help discourage someone from sharing or stealing your idea. It’s a legally binding contract that you can draw up at home and includes three basic things: a) the date the agreement goes into effect; b) how long it will run; and c) the specific information that is confidential. Most NDAs are only a few pages long and the wording clearly and concisely lays out the parameters of the agreement. There are two types of NDAs: a “unilateral” non-disclosure is when one party agrees not to disclose certain information of another party; and a “mutual” non-disclosure is when both parties agree not to disclose one another’s information. The most commonly used non-disclosure agreement is a “unilateral” NDA and more than likely, that will be one that you would utilize when sharing your ideas. NDAs are pretty common in Hollywood and a good number of production companies, networks and studios require that a non-disclosure agreement be signed before they will allow you to pitch them your TV show or film ideas. Some people are hesitant to utilize NDAs because they’re afraid it will offend the person they’re trying to do business with and as a result, could derail their business relationship. However, this is business and if you’re doing business with is legit, this should be a non-issue. A non-disclosure agreement is not to be taken lightly and if it is breached, the person or party who exposes the confidential information could be sued for damages or in some instances, face criminal charges.

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  1. UNDERSTAND COPYRIGHT VERSUS WGACondoms aren’t the only kind of protection in Hollywood. Okay, that was an over-the-top opening sentence, but its starkness puts a spotlight on the seriousness of protecting your original idea, script, song, novel, recipe, or TV concept. One of the biggest questions writers have regarding IP protection is U.S. Copyright Office versus the Writer’s Guild of America (East or West).U.S. Copyright Office The days of the “poor man’s copyright—or mailing your original content to yourself—is over. Here’s what “copyright.gov” has to say about the subject: The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a ‘poor man’s copyright’. There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration. On January 1, 1978 copyright legislation dictated that all original works are “automatically copyrighted” from the time of “creation” and are indeed “legally” recognized as created by you. But there’s a big ‘but’. If you write an original screenplay on your computer you can absolutely prove that it was created by you on the specific date imbedded on your computer’s hard drive.

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However, if you then utilize your newly created (and unregistered) script as part of your writing class and you distribute 30 copies to every student; and 6 months later, one of your classmates shoots a film that sounds a lot like your script—guess what? You can sue your classmate, BUT because you never actually registered your script with the U.S. Copyright Office, you will not be covered by the “statutory damages” rule that gives the courts the authority to fine those persons who violate your copyright. As a result of your script being “unregistered”, the only recourse you would have would be to hire an attorney and try to prove your actual damages in court, but even with that, sometimes the courts won’t even allow a lawsuit to go forth unless the plaintiff has proof of copyright registration “before” the complaint was filed. Also, it would be very hard to convince a court of law that there was any “malice of forethought” involved when you were the one who willingly distributed an “unregistered” screenplay to a classroom full of people who are also trying to do exactly what you want to do—make movies. That would be a painful and horrific lesson to learn and it’s just not worth it. If you truly believe that your original content is the next big thing, go ahead and register, spend the $50 single filing fee and enjoy a little peace of mind because U.S. Copyright Office registration lasts for the life of the author plus 50 years.

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Writer’s Guild of America – If you use the latest version of Final Draft (the Hollywood standard in writing programs), you can click on the “file” tab and you will see a button marked “WGA”. If you click on that button, it will take you to the “script registry” page where you will have the option of clicking on “WGA West Registry” or “Writers Guild of America East”. Once you choose which coast you want to register with, you will then fill out the registration form and pay $20.00 for general registration submission or $10.00 for WGA members’ submission. Final Draft takes away the excuse of not registering your script because it’s ‘too time-consuming and laborious’. Of course, you don’t need Final Draft in order to type or register your script and you can always just go directly to the Writer’s Guild website and register that way too. A WGA registration is good for 10 years and you can re-register after the registration period has lapsed. WGA registration has one advantage over U.S. Copyright. If you have a lawsuit regarding authorship or credit and it goes to trial, the WGA will appoint an employee to appear in court and testify regarding the validity of your date of registration. That rarely ever happens, but it’s good to know that if you need someone in your corner, it’s an available option.

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**And in case you’re wondering, it’s perfectly fine to register under both, but in actuality, U.S. Copyright is stronger as it is most acknowledged and widely used.

Here’s a breakdown of what each registration service offers because either way, the message is clear and simple: GET IP PROTECTION!

Courtesy: Larry Zerner ESQ

Courtesy: Larry Zerner ESQ

 Related links:

Ranker.com lists “21 Films Accused of Copyright Infringement”

Indieclear.com lists the top films of 2015 associated with Copyright infringements

Read how the “Frozen” lawsuit is causing a real meltdown for Disney

Sites that Provide Non-Disclosure Agreement Templates