I have been a producer for two nationally broadcast television series, one of which is currently airing out Outside television, and I’m working on developing a third. Through those experiences, I have learned that revealing the right information to the right people at the right time, while still protecting your creative idea, can be tricky.
It is a complicated process that takes into play personalities, who you know and current trends often more than the content of your idea; and usually means bring more to the table than just your idea… but that is a topic for another day.
Over the years, countless creative ideas have been stolen in the film and television industry. Many film companies and projects have gone under locked in legal battles. But there are ways to make the shady areas of negotiating more clear.
Monica Harris is an attorney who has worked in broadcast network and cable television and in the scripted and reality genres for nearly 20 years with companies like Viacom Media Networks, NBC-Universal Television and ABC/Walt Disney Television. I recently asked her to write an introduction on how to better protect creative content through the negotiating process.
Protecting Your Creative Content
Any successful writer or producer will tell you that coming up with a compelling concept for a series is really only half the battle; much of the heavy lifting occurs when the time comes to sell – or “pitch” – the concept. And therein lies the challenge, because the goal is not merely to persuade a prospective buyer to purchase your idea, but to also dissuade the buyer from using your idea without paying you for it.
Whether you are pitching an idea for an unscripted series or selling a script for a web series or sitcom, the fundamental rule of idea protection is the same: flesh out your idea on paper as much as possible, register your idea and make sure that you create a paper trail leading to anyone who has touched or seen your work.
Fleshing Out Your Concept:
If you’ve written a script for a film or TV series, this isn’t a problem. You’ve already completed this step by reducing your vision to a recognizable and protectable format that includes characters, an established environment, scenes and dialogue. Fleshing out concepts for unscripted projects in the form of “treatments” is a bit more challenging and actually takes some practice to master. Experienced producers can create these in batches at a time, as they are accustomed to pitching these formats to production companies, studios and networks, but for the newcomer the task of formulating a compelling and sales-worthy treatment is often challenging. There are many resources online and classes that can assist the aspiring writer/producer in developing treatments, but the important thing to keep in mind for purposes of this discussion is that mere ideas cannot be protected under copyright laws. Therefore, the more detailed the treatment, the easier it is to protect the ideas contained in them. For example, it is much easier to protect a concept for a competition/elimination show that involves young couples on an island who engage in physical and mental challenges each week, and after being voted off are replaced with another couple from the viewing audience than it is to make the case for a reality show about couples on an island. You get the idea.
Registering Your Work:
This task is actually fairly simple. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) offers a relatively affordable registration process for members and non-members which allows them to register any script. Even better, the WGA permits writers to register multiple drafts of the same script, which has the advantage of allowing an artist to protect any changes, whether incidental or material, to the underlying concept. A change could be something as significant as the addition of a character or as minor as changing the dialogue in a scene.
Writers can register their scripts with either the WGAW or the WGAE (there are two offices of the WGA, located in Los Angeles and New York):
The cost of registration is nominal ($20 for non-members with the WGAW and $25 for non-members with the WGAE) , and it provides an independent, objective third party verification of the content of your work at a particular point in time. Speaking of “work”, WGA registration is also extremely valuable because it protects a broad range of material including treatments, synopses, outlines, and written ideas specifically intended for radio, television and film, video cassettes/discs, or interactive media. The WGAW Registry also accepts stageplays, novels and other books, short stories, poems, commercials, strategic marketing campaign, lyrics, drawings, music and other media work. So whether you come up with an idea for the next great reality series or a detailed marketing campaign, you can protect your written concept by registering it.
Submitting Your Work:
Now that you’ve fleshed out your idea and registered it, you’re ready to start knocking on doors and making phone calls to prospective buyers. The best way to pitch your idea is with the aid of an entertainment lawyer or an agent who has established contacts with potential buyers and has a better chance of getting your material in front of a decision-maker. Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done, as the best-connected lawyers and agents don’t have much spare time on their hands and won’t consider “shopping” material unless they believe they have a good shot at selling it. If you’re lucky enough to be invited in to pitch your work without being represented by a lawyer or an agent, then it is more likely than not that you will be asked to sign a submission release. In essence, this is a document that is designed to protect the prospective buyer form the very type of claim (idea theft) that you are likely to bring against the them if they produce a project that is substantially similar to yours.
Submission releases range in length from one page to several pages, and some are scarier than others. But the general idea is always the same: by submitting your work, you are acknowledging if the buyer happens to have a project in development that is similar to something that you are sending to them, you will not sue them. So you’re probably wondering at this point why anyone would ever sign a submission release. The short answer is this: if a buyer has no prior experience with you, and if you are not approaching them via a representative (a lawyer or an agent) with whom they have had prior dealings, then they will not consider your work unless you sign a release. Moreover, although many writers think that they are the only ones who have ever come up with a brilliant concept, the truth is that very few ideas are truly unique. As the old adage goes, there are really only 13 basic story archetypes in literature, and everything is derivative – in some way, shape or form – of those archetypes. What this means is that somewhere out there another writer has likely come up with a similar idea and has pitched it to a buyer, and perhaps even the same buyer that you are approaching. As a former head of a network business and legal affairs department for many years, I can confirm that my creative execs routinely received the same pitches independently from different producers multiple times.
Having said that, a submission release should not deter you from submitting your material to legitimate producers or other buyers, especially if you have registered your work. Why? Because signing a submission release doesn’t mean that a buyer can steal your idea; it just means that you will have to make a strong case that (a) you submitted the idea to them first and (b) the project that they produced is substantially-similar to the idea that you submitted to them.
Which brings us to the paper trail. Regardless of whether you submit your work for consideration through a representative or with a submission release, it is important for you to keep your own personal, written record of the people who have seen your work, i.e. evidence of the date, time, name and title of the person who received the submission. Email provides an ideal method for creating a written record of the content submitted. It is never a good idea to simply walk into a room, leave your written material, shake hands and wait by the phone. Make a point of sending written material before your face-to-face meeting. And if you don’t have the opportunity to submit your material before a meeting? Then simply follow-up with an email with your material attached, thanking the buyer for taking the time to meet with you and generally re-capping the essence of your pitch in broad strokes. It doesn’t have to be heavy-handed; just enough to let the person you met with know that you appreciated their time and remind them why your project is a special one. If you are required to sign a submission release, be sure to attach your material to the signed release so that a written record is created.
While the steps set forth above by no means guarantee that your valuable intellectual property will never be appropriated without your consent, they will aid you in protecting yourself from theft to the greatest extent possible and will make prospective buyers think twice about producing projects that are uncomfortably similar to yours.
Harris can be reached by calling (424) 280-0630 or by email at email@example.com.