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Whether you are embarking on a new creative journey or simply looking to engage yourself in your spare time, your creative outlet is worthy of protection. If you are a scriptwriter, one way to protect your work is through copyright. This article will explain:

  • what copyright is; and
  • how scriptwriters can protect their works. 

What Is Copyright?

Copyright in Australia is a free and automatic right. It requires no formal registration. Copyright protects the expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself. It grants the owner with exclusive rights to control the material in a manner they choose. 

It is important to note that to have copyright over material, it must be in tangible form. 

For example, if you discuss a script idea with a friend or potential publisher, they are under no obligation to recognise ownership of your idea unless it is written down. This is because copyright protects works, not ideas. 

How Does Copyright Protect Scripts?

The works you create as a scriptwriter automatically gain copyright protection from the date of creation. This is because there are no formal application procedures to obtain copyright. In addition to this, scripts have moral rights associated with them. Moral rights are rights which protect the creative status of writers. You cannot licence or sell moral rights. 

In Australia, there are three recognised moral rights. These are the right:

  • to be attributed as the author of your script;
  • not to have your script falsely attributed; and
  • of integrity and to prevent derogatory treatment of your work.

As a writer, you deserve to be attributed as the author in a prominent manner, especially in situations where a third party wants to reproduce or publish your work. 

A writer’s moral rights last throughout their lifetime and then a further 70 years after a writer’s death (where the writer’s estate can hold them) until the copyright expires.

As with the automatic right to copyright, there is no requirement in Australia to enforce or assert your moral rights as a scriptwriter. However, this is a requirement in other countries. Hence, if you are looking to publish or distribute your work overseas, you should seek legal advice before signing a distribution contract.

How to Protect Your Copyright in a Script

Before you go ahead shopping around your script, one way of securing more protection would be to register your script with the Australian Writers Guild (AWG). The AWG is a professional association that protects the interests and rights of Australian performance writers. The registration of your script helps legitimise the creation date and provide proof of the origin of the works. This is also a useful step to help you take action for a breach of copyright if another scriptwriter or a third party steals your script. 

Once you register your script, you can start pitching your script to producers, publishers and agents. Although not strictly required to ensure copyright protection, you can add the © symbol to your script along with your name, the date of creation and AWG registration number to ensure wider protection. It can also be helpful to include contact information or instructions about how to seek permission to use your work. Generally, most people know that it is important to seek permission from a copyright owner, but are often confused about how to do this. By making your contact information accessible, you have greater control over how third parties approach you to use your work. 

You can also choose to circulate your work in a format that is difficult to reproduce, for example in locked pdf form rather than in a word document. You may also be able to apply further security over your work. A technological protection measure (TPM) is a lock that can prevent a third party from copying your work without permission. Although not generally used for scripts, these are commonly used for more visual media. Therefore, it may be a useful tool in further protecting your work if you are worried about copycats. 

Protecting Your Copyright in a Joint or Multiple Authorship

You may be in a position where the script is the result of collaboration between various writers. In such a situation, it is possible for two or more people to own the copyright to a script. To be joint authors, both writers must prove that they have made a ‘significant and original’ contribution to the script. The joint ownership of the copyright is also considered equal unless both authors have agreed otherwise. If this is the case, it would be beneficial to have the agreement formalised in a contract. 

In a joint authorship, each author must get consent from the other before: 

  • licensing a third party to use the material; or 
  • waiving the full copyright. 

However, each individual author is entitled to independently assign or sell their share of the copyright. If one of the authors dies, their share of the copyright and any royalties they receive will pass to their estate. 

Signing Your Rights to Third Parties

As a scriptwriter selling your ideas to a production company or publishing agent, you may be asked to: 

  • sign a waiver; or 
  • assign your rights to them. 

It is common in the film industry for a production company to ask a scriptwriter to assign their rights to a film or television script to them. This means the production company owns the rights and can do what they want with the material. Many budding writers make the mistake of signing away their rights in the hopes of receiving exposure for their creative work.

Before signing this document, it is a good idea to get independent legal advice. You might find that such a waiver or assignment actually works in your favour, or you may wish to negotiate the terms. Either way, you should feel in control of your work. 

Key Takeaways

Not everybody has the ability to write the next bestseller or blockbuster film or television script, so it is important to protect your rights if you feel you have come up with something original and worthy of publication. If you need help deciding how best to protect your copyright as a scriptwriter, contact LegalVision’s intellectual property lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is copyright?

Copyright is a right that applies automatically to creative works. It only applies to tangible creations, however, not ideas.

Is my script protected by copyright?

As soon as you write your television or play script down, it gains copyright protection. However, if you have only thought about an idea for a script, or spoken to someone about it, you do not yet have protection.

How do I protect my idea for a movie or television show?

It is difficult to protect an idea. Therefore, you should write down your idea as soon as possible so that it gains copyright protection. Once you have written down your script, you can add the © symbol, your name and the date you created it to the document. You can also register your script with the Australian Writers Guild for further protection.

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