Recently, I received an email from a highly respectable screenwriting notes service detailing their latest offering: a partnership with an entertainment attorney to help writers copyright their work for a fee. Their pitch was aimed at writers who view the world of intellectual property rights with fear and confusion. Now, I don’t want to tell anyone not to use this service if it makes you feel comfortable, but I do want writers to understand that it is entirely unnecessary. And this particular service, at $85 above the copyright fee, really rubbed me the wrong way.
Firstly, the form they ask you to fill out is copied almost verbatim from the US Copyright Office’s website. If you can fill out their form, you can go online and fill out the official form yourself. Secondly, using an attorney to fill out this form will not make it more official or better protected. It is a monumental waste of money.
Beyond the fact that I feel this service takes advantage of amateur writers, it is also a classic example of handing someone a mackerel instead of teaching them to fish.
So grab your poles, writers, and learn to do it for yourself.
In order to copyright your work (and I highly recommend you do), start by going to the official website at www.copyright.gov From there you simply register with their system using your email and follow along the prompt to fill out the form. After uploading your work you will be taken to a page to pay for it, either $35 for a single author or $55 for a collaboration, and they will mail you the certificate in a few weeks. The questions on the website are relatively simple and straightforward. The only warning is that a screenplay is considered a work of performing art, while a fiction manuscript would be considered a literary work. There are several helpful (AND FREE) tutorials on the government website to walk you through the process.
Copyrighting your work is important to protect yourself and the people reading your work. One of the questions I hear most often at panels and talks is “How do I keep people from stealing my work?” The truth is, you can’t. But you can make it hard. In order for your work to be seen or read it has to be… seen or read. So many writers I have worked with like to keep their projects close to their chests, making sure no one has the opportunity to steal it out from under them. But you can’t do that. No one is actually going to steal your work (I could write an entire post about this, maybe I already have…). In our highly litigious world, it doesn’t make financial sense to take the risk. Hence the pervasive number of release and non-disclosure agreements you will have to sign as a working writer.
The best advice I can give is to get over the fear, sign up at http://www.copyright.gov/, and send out your work to whoever is willing to read it.
Addendum: People have asked me whether registering a script with the WGA is worthwhile. I say it’s your money and if you want to pay the extra $25 for a WGA registration, then have at it. But it must be done in addition to, not instead of, a government copyright.