How To Protect Your Intellectual Property
Almost every creative person I know (hereinafter jointly referred to as "you") fears that their ideas and creative material will be stolen by an unscrupulous executive or competitor. There’s no denying that the entertainment industry is replete with people desperate and unethical enough to usurp another person's intellectual property1 (hereinafter sometimes referred to as "material"). And, as such, you can opt to never to share your material for the sake of safeguarding it from theft, or you can accept the reality that you have to take calculated risks to succeed. After all, you cannot sell what you don't shop.2 The alternative to complete secrecy is shopping with a "work smart" kind of approach. I am sharing with you herein what I know about the protection of intellectual property, so that you can shop your material effectively, and without paranoia.
The U. S. Copyright Act (the "Act") protects original3 works of authorship, like literary works and characters, music, movies, visual art, photography, etc., when they are fixed in a tangible medium. By "fixed", the Act means that the work is embodied in a manner that is "sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration", e.g., a play, video, musical recording, painting, etc. The Act does not protect ideas, concepts, principles and discoveries. For example, a one paragraph synopsis of your screenplay idea and pitch4 is in all likelihood an unprotected idea for purposes of the Act, but a full blown treatment, with detailed characters and story beats, should qualify for protection.
Copyright protection attaches automatically once the work is created and fixed in a tangible form. Notwithstanding the foregoing, I recommend that you also register your copyright with the U .S. Office of Copyright, because it affords certain valuable benefits not otherwise available. If you formally register your copyright, you can secure an injunction5 and can potentially be awarded money damages by a judge. If you don't register your copyright, then you may get the former, but not the latter. Though not required, I suggest that you place the copyright notice on your work, as a potential deterrent to infringers.
1 "Intellectual Property" defines creative works that are the product of the mind – the intellect e.g. idea, songs, treatments, screenplays, teleplays, poems, short story, films, logos, etc. Inventions, processes, and logos are, also, intellectual property, but are protected under Patent and Trademark Law, which are not the topic of this article.
2 To "shop" is defined herein to mean your attempt to sell your idea, or get production financing for it, by calling upon companies and/or producers who may be in the market for such material.
3 "Original" means that the author created the work herself, or that she hired and paid someone to create a work for her.
4 "Pitch" for purposes of this agreement will mean an informal and brief explanation of your idea for a television show or movie.
5 A court order which will stop the infringer from exploiting the copyright protected work.