So you’ve just come up with the next Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, or Cupcake Wars, and now you want to protect it. Very understandable. Hollywood, as with any industry, is full of people who may be willing to scam you out of your idea, and the last thing you want to hear is that Big Studio X is developing a title that looks a hell of a lot like the pilot you just pitched them last week!
With this in mind, we’re breaking down the ins-and-outs of copyrighting your TV show idea. Can you copyright a TV show idea? Should you even bother? And how do you actually go about doing it?
If you want to skip right to the “How”, click here.
Can you copyright a show idea?
No. According to US copyright law, nobody owns ideas. That doesn’t mean you can’t copyright a lot about your story. You can, and probably should. You just can’t copyright the idea itself. If you pitch an executive your show idea, and find out the next week they’re in development on a similar project, you’re out of luck. Ideas are public domain. Here’s the US Copyright Office’s two cents on the matter:
Copyright law does not protect ideas, methods, or systems. Copyright protection is therefore not available for ideas or procedures for doing, making, or building things; scientific or technical methods or discoveries; business operations or procedures; mathematical principles; formulas or algorithms; or any other concept, process, or method of operation.Source
So what can you copyright? In general, once you put something in writing, the US Copyright Office defines it as the “description, explanation, or illustration of an idea”, and it’s protected. To illustrate this point, here are two ideas. One is protected by copyright, one isn’t:
This is public domain: When a young English boy discovers he can talk to animals and telepathically communicate with dead men, he’s abducted and sent to a dangerous, mismanaged institution for weird kids. He becomes entangled with many others children with similar powers, and eventually comes face to face with dead guy he’s been communicating with in his head.
This is protected: Harry Potter learns he’s a wizard from a half-giant named Hagrid and is sent to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He makes some friends, like ginger-haired Ron Weasley, and brainy Hermione Granger, and some enemies, like privileged Draco Malfoy and greasy Professor Snape. Eventually, he comes face to face with the dark lord who gave him his scar, the feared Lord Voldemort.
So, in general, here are some protected things:
- Names/descriptions of fictional places and entities.
- Names/descriptions of characters.
- Events, or series of events, described in a specific way
As you can tell, there’s a lot of grey area here. But if you want to copyright your TV show idea, there are some important things you have to do:
- Start writing – This is the answer to most questions about the writing process. Just do the thing and let the rest fall into place.
- Be conscious about what you write. You don’t need a full script to make a copyright. Write a bible (a single document featuring character descriptions, unique settings, and the plot).
- The more you write, the better. After writing your bible, make a pitch deck, write a first draft of your script, or a short story based on your project. The more writing you have, the more sound your claim to copyright becomes.
This may seem like you’re basically just writing the whole show. So this brings us to our next question…
Should you copyright your show?
I don’t want to scare you out of going in to pitch. If you get the opportunity, take it. Tell the people you meet with anything they want to know about your show idea, without worrying about your intellectual property. Because here’s the truth: the likelihood that they actually try to steal your idea is close to zero. If an executive or studio likes your show, it’s way way cheaper for them to simply buy the pitch from you, than it is to steal it. Why? Hollywood is a half-a-trillion dollar industry. That’s a lot of money. Studios spend billions on content every year. Paying an unknown writer $100,000 to buy their pilot is chump change, especially when compared to the millions they may have to shell out if you sue them for theft. These studios want to manage risk, and nothing is riskier than stealing a show idea.
So when should you consider copyrighting your show?
- When you go in to pitch – Not only does this add a sliver of protection (for the one-in-a-million nightmare scenario), but it provides an extra bit of professionalism when you’re in the room, actually pitching the thing.
- When you start production – The more money you have behind a project, the more valuable it is, and the more likely that somebody decides to come after you. If you’re making an indie-film, cover yourself before you start production.
- If you’re going to sue – You have copyright from the moment you start writing. But, if you’re going to sue somebody for intellectual property theft, you’re going to need a registered copyright to do so.
So now that we’ve got the “Cans” and “Shoulds” out of the way, let’s talk “How”…
How do you copyright your show idea?
Before we begin, let’s recap:
- You can’t copyright an idea. You have to put pen to paper (or, more likely, 0s to 1s) before you have any legal rights.
- The more writing you do on the project, the better. Have at least a show bible (a single document with character descriptions, settings locations, and storylines). But having a draft of the script doesn’t hurt either.
- Only copyright your show when it matters, such as before you go into pitch or before you start production (on an independently-financed project).
So, assuming you’ve done all of the above, how do you actually copyright your show idea? The answer is pretty anticlimactic: your project is protected by copyright from the moment you start writing. This article, for instance, has not been registered with the US Copyright Office, but it’s protected all the same. If you try to steal the contents of this article, I can still sue you. I know that’s not the sexy answer you wanted, so let’s talk about registering your copyright. This is what I would have to do before I actually filed a lawsuit against you for stealing this article.
There are two main ways of registering a copyright for a TV show idea:
OPTION 1: The Writers Guild of America
These steps are for the Writers Guild West Registry (which covers all writers living west of the Mississippi river). For WGA East, click here.
Writers Guild Registration technically serves as a “claim of authorship”, and they stipulate on their website that they don’t provide official copyright registration. You can’t take somebody to court over a WGA registration. That being said, registering with the WGA is widely accepted as a copyright for a script. So here’s how you do it:
- Make sure you have one of the following: a script, a treatment, a synopsis, a short (script), or an outline. A PDF is preferable. Don’t send editable files (.fdx, .fadein, .fountain).
- Visit the WGA Script Registry
- Click the ‘Register Now’ button, and enter the desired information (you’ll upload the script later). If there are multiple authors, make sure to add all of them.
- On the next page, you’ll be asked to enter your credit card information. The fee for non-WGA members is $20, and registration lasts for 5 years (renewal costs the same as registration).
- This page is also where you’ll upload your script. Make sure to select the right document, because you can’t make changes once you’ve registered.
- Before you click the button marked ‘Register This Item’, make sure to review all your information. You cannot change it once you’ve completed registration.
- Click the button 🙂
NOTE: Once you’ve registered your TV show idea with the WGA, you’ll get a registration number. It’s commonplace to display this number at the bottom of the title page of your screenplay to add an extra layer of legitimacy.
OPTION 2: Library of Congress
The second option for registering your copyright is with the US Copyright Office and the Library of Congress. Here’s the skinny on that process:
- Registration with the US Copyright Office is required to sue somebody for copyright infringement.
- You can register online, or by mailing in an application
- The one-time fee is $45 (unless your TV show idea has multiple authors or is a “Work for Hire” project, in which case it’s $65)
- It takes roughly 25 minutes to complete the application (as with most government websites, copyright.gov is slow and backwards).
This video from the US Copyright Office explains the process:
You can register your copyright with the US Copyright Officer and LoC here.
NOTE: The US Copyright Office prefers you to use Mozilla Firefox to complete your filing. I have successfully registered a copyright using Microsoft Edge, however, with no issues. Continue at your own risk.
So there you have it. You’ve successfully protected your TV show idea. The next step is turning that idea into reality. If you’ve never written a script before, you may want to check out our guide to writing your first screenplay. If you have finished your script, and are looking to sell it to studios, you’re going to want an agent or manager. Without one, it’s going to be very difficult to get any bites. And here’s where shameless self-promotion comes in. The easiest way to start reaching out to agents is with ‘Get Me An Agent’. A plan from ‘Get Me An Agent’, gets you unlimited access to hundreds of agent emails, free templates to help you craft your query letters, and unlimited 24/7/365 Live Chat support with real industry professionals to help you put your best fit forward. We have plans for writers looking for agents, managers, or both, and our plans start at only $19.99/mo. Every plan comes with a free month to get started! So what are you waiting for?