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Announcement: Should I Register or Copyright My Project?

A reader, ELLISSA, recently asked a few questions (in the Comments section of this post: How Do I Pitch A TV Show?).  Ellissa’s questions were interesting enough, that I thought I’d give fairly detailed answers, so here goes:

Ellissa commented:
Would a producer with a pitch idea, ever pitch a show to a network/studio without copyrighting it or registering it first? If the producer had a deal with the network/studio, like a first look /development deal, would they pitch it without registering it? Would a network ever go to pilot without having the producer/creator/writer of the show register or copyright a script or treatment? Would network/studio want validation of ownership before it shot a pilot or went into series production? Thanks for any info on these questions.

Hey Ellissa —
Let’s start with the first question: “Would a producer with a pitch idea, ever pitch a show to a network/studio without copyrighting it or registering it first?”  I used to register everything I did with the WGA (Writers Guild of America), which you can do for $20 per project ($10 if you’re a member), see here for details.  As for copyrighting your project?  It’s done but I never have.  As far as WGA registration, it got to be expensive, and honestly, I stopped many years ago, as I found that it was not an efficient business model.  For me, it boiled down to this:  Can you get ripped off by someone/some company/some network?  Absolutely.  WILL you get ripped off by one of them?  Not very likely.  Most legitimate, reputable people and companies will not do so, as it is a bad business model for them.  They don’t want to get sued, and in reality, they don’t want to have a reputation of stealing from others.  This entire business is built on relationships, and not many  people/companies want to ruin that by stealing something from someone.  Can or will it happen?  No doubt.  But the percentage of that is very very low.  And no major company will do so knowingly, although it’s not impossible.

Also, keep in mind that while you are developing a project to the point of pitching it, there are probably 10 other people developing the very same idea, or something close to it.  Literally.  I’ve spoken with many a develop exec and asked them how often they get pitched the same idea.  Some have said that it’s amazing how often they hear the same pitch, oftentimes within the same week.  So you may think, when you read in the trades about a project that was exactly like yours, that someone swiped your idea, or that it’s eerily similar to something you pitched, but more often than not, it was merely pitched BETTER or SOONER by someone else. As director John Landis is quoted in Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan’s 2008 book “John Landis”: “Every movie I have been involved with that was a big hit had people suing the studio saying it was their idea. We live in a very litigious society. You can sue anybody for anything here.”  To me, that just states that four or five other people had the same idea around the same time, but only one person got it made.

Obviously, when you have a very specific idea (a mobster seeks counseling while trying to juggle his two “families”) it is much harder to rip off than when you have something more generic (a young woman hangs out with three wacky guys — that could be The Big Bang Theory or The New Girl, since those are both described by that logline).  So make sure you have very specific characters, plot and themes, and you’ll be better off.  (That will also help you when you’re pitching.)

So for me, it came down to how many $20 registrations (I was not a WGA member at the time) did I want to pay?  I have, on average, anywhere from 50-100 projects rolling around in my head/computer (some are one line ideas that need to be developed, some are fully fleshed-out 25 page treatments, most are in between), so it would be very expensive and time consuming to register everything I want to pitch.  I made the decision to not register everything… or anything for that matter.

And registering with the WGA doesn’t prove it’s your idea.  It only proves that on the date the project was registered, that you sent them this project.

The only other thing I’d throw in for this question is that I’ve reached a certain level in the business, wherein I’m somewhat “known” (at least, within  the industry!) and it makes it a little harder for someone to rip me off.  For someone new to the business, they may still feel the need to register or copyright their project.  But honestly, when I see a script that’s got the registration number on the cover, my first thought is “newbie”… not that there’s anything wrong with that, I just know that I’m probably dealing with someone who hasn’t sold anything yet or who is somewhat less experienced.

Pitch to reputable people/companies, and you should be fine without registration, is my bottom line.  Having an idea or script stolen has never happened to me, or to any of my friends, that I know of, so I’m just not too worried about it (check back in a year or two, and we’ll see!).  Have I pitched things to various networks and/or companies, that they passed on, and then later something very similar came out from that company?  Yes, but never anything that was an exact copy, so it never really got to me.  Also, sometimes you’ll be in a pitch, they like what you’re pitching and say something like, “That’s great, got anything else?”, and you’ll start talking about it and they cut you off, saying they have something very similar already in development, so I know that similar ideas are often in the “ether”, as they say.

As with everything else in this business, there are no rules and I’m sure there are people who have horrific stories about getting ripped off.  Newspaper columnist Art Buchwald famously sued Paramount Pictures in 1990, for breach of contract, stating that Paramount had ripped off his idea for the Eddie Murphy feature “Coming to America”, but that suit ending up being more about how profits are defined and paid to writers and other “net profits” holders, than about Paramount having taken Buchwald’s idea… (see: Buchwald v. Paramount).

As for your other questions:

If the producer had a deal with the network/studio, like a first look/development deal, would they pitch it without registering it?“:   There is no need to worry when you have a deal with a studio that they will rip you off.  It just isn’t done to someone that is part of their corporate “family”.

Would a network ever go to pilot without having the producer/creator/writer of the show register or copyright a script or treatment?”  Well, the weird thing here is that once a studio or network buys your project, you usually do not own it anymore.  They become the copyright holders and you are merely the hired gun… (and therefore more easily replaceable, so watch out).  But, as long as you’re doing great work, they’ll most likely keep you in place.  You will still have some sort of ownership of the project, based on what your lawyer negotiates, but they literally own your project once you’ve signed it over to them.  And guess what?  They copyright it, for sure!

Would a network/studio want validation of ownership before it shot a pilot or went into series production?”  Yes, every buyer will want proof that you actually wrote the project (or control the rights to it), so they’ll send along a document called the Certificate of Authorship, commonly referred to as the COA.  The COA basically says you wrote it (or control it), that it is original, that it can be assigned it to another owner (the studio), and a few other things.  There’s an example of one here: COA Sample

Thanks, Ellissa, for a great string of questions, and I hope this helps!  Obviously I’m no lawyer, so be sure to get the help of a qualified entertainment business lawyer to get all the details correct.

Posted in Career Advice, Hollywood.

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