How do I protect or copyright my new TV program pitch?
May 23, 2004 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I have a Televison/Cable program idea that would require a "pitch". Question: how does one protect/copyright said "pitch"
posted by clavdivs to Law & Government (20 answers total)
Talk to a lawyer.

posted by kickingtheground at 6:28 PM on May 23, 2004

Once you finish it, it's copyrighted. Copyright is automatic in the US. If you want a record of your copyright, fill out Form TX and send your 30 bucks in to the copyright office.
posted by headspace at 6:35 PM on May 23, 2004

I forget who linked to this in a previous AskMe, but this column seems particularly relevant to your question. (and the rest of the columns make pretty interesting reading as well.)
posted by ook at 6:40 PM on May 23, 2004

troutfishing recently asked the same question, and I pointed out that the Writer's Union will register a story synopsis or screenplay to provide proof that you had it first.
posted by nicwolff at 7:04 PM on May 23, 2004

I believe he's asking if he can copyright a "pitch" - not an actual script. The answer is: No.

A pitch is an idea. If you could copyright mere ideas, I'd be out there registering: "A couple of friends share an apartment in the big city", "Precocious child causes much consternation for parents","Police track serial killer on the loose", "Boy meets girl and falls in love after initially losing her".
posted by RavinDave at 8:41 PM on May 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

They're an Uruguayan rugby team,
It's the largest mountain range in the world
with hilarious consequences.
posted by holloway at 9:08 PM on May 23, 2004

Interesting sidebar:

Wonder why you haven't seen "Jingle All The Way" for quite awhile? Wonder why the DVD was selling for upwards of $40 bucks on ebay until somewhat recently? It had been the quietly shelved until a plagarism suit against it went to appeal. Initially, a lower court had awared $19 million dollars to a High School teacher who claimed it infringed on his script "Could This Be Christmas". It was later reduced and recently thrown out altogether.

Unfortunately for writers -- this is exactly why it is so difficult to break in. If the studios give an amateur a shot -- they merely open themselves up to frivolous law suits.
posted by RavinDave at 9:19 PM on May 23, 2004

A pitch is an idea.

No, a pitch is a presentation of an idea, and he *can* copyright the presentation of that idea once he's put it in a fixed medium (ie, written it down.) A proper pitch goes beyond "Two guys who work at a coffee shop who solve crimes between lattes," to explain who the two guys are, what their relationship is to one another, and how they end up solving crimes, what kinds of crimes those might be. A pitch also usually includes a few episode exemplars to indicate that the idea can sustain itself beyond the pilot.
posted by headspace at 9:22 PM on May 23, 2004

Once he's put it in a "fixed medium" it is no longer a "pitch" in the sense most writers use. If you have an actual script, you are spec'ing (speculating) and that's a separate matter handled differently. But the original question of this thread said that the poster had an "idea" that he would need to pitch. Again ... mere ideas are not protected. If they were, nothing would ever get made.

Here's a nifty link from Screenplay.Com:

Question: What legal protections or actions should we take when we pitch projects?—Gene R.

Answer: The answer to this question depends on whether the project is just an idea in your head, or a fully-written script. If it is an idea, you need to understand that ideas are not protectible under copyright law, so your only remedy may be to establish an agreement, or contract, between you and the person you are pitching to.

posted by RavinDave at 9:44 PM on May 23, 2004

The WGA allows you to register a pitch. Keep in mind that "pitch" is a nebulous term. It can mean anything from a single word or line in a script (i.e. I pitched the character say X instead of Y), to a flushed out television series or feature film idea complete with characters, backstory, plots and subplots, and season-long story arcs. Despite what the link from may tell you, the area between "just an idea" and a "fully-written script" can be robust, with ample opportunities to enter the marketplace along the way. And there are protections that cover this gap.

However, keep in mind that any claims of intellectual property theft would hinge on 1) your particular execution of an idea, both in depth and manner, and 2) whether or not the party who is alleged to have "stolen" the idea had access to your material. Creative minds can -- and do -- come up with similar ideas. Happens all the time.

But to answer the OP's question -- register your idea w/ the guild (east or west, you don't have to be a member to do so). The cost is minimal compared to the protection, and piece of mind, it gives you.
posted by herc at 10:29 PM on May 23, 2004

Paging anathema........
posted by troutfishing at 10:30 PM on May 23, 2004

Dave, I don't need a link; this is what I do for a living. You can actually register with the Copyright Office an audio tape of you describing your project- you don't use Form TX for that, though; you can write it down (Form TX,) you can paint it in a picture (not Form TX,) but if you really think that all a pitch is "It's Die Hard meets Bill & Ted!" then hey, sure, you can't copyright that, but if you actually want to sell that idea, you need more, namely a treatment, and that is copyrightable. There is a vast difference between "a farmer discovers aliens in our midst" and "Ted Johnson, 32 was raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and loved his simple life, only to wake up one day and discover that the entire world is a lie created by the Mechadroid Gods of Zargon IV." You're copyrighting the details, not the idea. I'm guessing since it's an idea for a series that clavdivs probably has more than a thumbnail sketch in mind.
posted by headspace at 11:15 PM on May 23, 2004

A sealed letter posted to your lawyer, or to yourself and deposited in a bank deposit box works in some countries. There can also be a 'gentleman's agreement' i.e they will look at your idea on the condition they will not rip it off. I've used that option safely many a time [I don't live in the USA so for all I know they may all be evil over there].

Off Question: Some embarrassing pitches I've heard are so vague that they seem to cover every program in the world - be REALLY detailed - it'll also make the idea more saleable.
posted by meech at 11:35 PM on May 23, 2004

Real world advice from a practicing entertainment lawyer.

Note especially the illuminating discussion of the famous "Musto v. Meyer" case [434 F. Supp. 32 (S.D.N.Y.1977)] wherein Nicholas Meyer filched the entire core premise for his (wonderful!) book/movie "The Seven Percent Solution from a speculative JAMA article entitled "A study in cocaine. Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud" by D.F. Musto -- yet was found INNOCENT of copyright infringement because he had borrowed a static idea (not the author's execution or expression of it).
posted by RavinDave at 8:40 AM on May 24, 2004

There is a vast difference between "a farmer discovers aliens in our midst" and "Ted Johnson, 32 was raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and loved his simple life, only to wake up one day and discover that the entire world is a lie created by the Mechadroid Gods of Zargon IV." You're copyrighting the details, not the idea.

Aye, there's the rub. You are indeed copyrighting the details. And if the studio says, "No thanks, not interested," and then comes out with a show a year later which is "Brian Parker, 28, was raised on a chicken farm in Iowa and loved his simple life, only to wake up one day and discover that the entire world is a lie created by the Ultradeviant Lizard People of Wooster IX," and they claim it was created entirely independently by people who had never seen or even heard of your treatment, you don't have much of a case against them.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:48 AM on May 24, 2004

That's why you copyright the treatment and document all of your meetings with a follow-up letter. Or, you know, copyright the treatment and sign on with a reputable agent who will take care of all the other details. There does come a point where overriding similarities in the execution of an idea will weigh on a writer's side. Sure, it would probably be prohibitively expensive to fight the battle, but as long as you have a paper trail, you have a chance. (Not that 99.999999% of all writers will ever find this to be an issue, seeing as how Hollywood is full of people clamoring with ideas, scripts, and treatments- there are very few ideas worth the trouble of stealing them.)
posted by headspace at 9:19 AM on May 24, 2004

I don't want to downplay anyone's concern about theft of their intellectual property and would never discourage them from taking prudent measures to protect themselves -- but don't get paranoid. If you start stamping neon 16-point copyright (or registration) notices on everything in sight, you'll brand yourself a novice and quite likely spook your prospective employer, who, by the way, will almost certainly have you sign some sort of in-house waiver before they hear you anyway (don't worry, it only provides limited protection for them and is meant to combat frivolous lawsuits).

Register your work with the WGA (by all means). A discrete line at the bottom of the front page is perfectly okay, but it is significant that NONE of the major screenwriting software programs provide this on their front page templates.

The point is that this sort of theft simply doesn't happen all that much (I'm assuming you're dealing with reputable companies who've been around awhile). It simply isn't worth the legal hassles and the rep they'd earn by ripping off an idea. Besides, they have plenty of legitimate ways to screw the writer. ;)

It does happen. Just not so much that needs to be on the front burner of your concerns. Usually, it's a case like Eddie Murphy screwing over Art Buchwald for development credit in "Coming to America". Notice -- it wasn't a company with a track record and a reputation ... it was a "star" with no business sense and a bit of an ego. Funny thing ... Buchwald did NOT win the case because of any sort of copyright infringement. He won on the basis that the studio had breached the confidentiality agreement he was smart enough to demand before pitching the treatment. The link I provided above references this approach. Unfortunately, it also notes that it is a delicate strategy for a novice to employ.
posted by RavinDave at 10:03 AM on May 24, 2004

nicwolff: Please, it is the writer's guild. Not union.
posted by bingo at 10:28 AM on May 24, 2004

I'd like to second what RavinDave said, re: mentioning the copyright/registration of your material. While you should register the stuff, you shouldn't call attention to this on your actual material, nor in your query letters or other correspondences. It looks amateurish. Anyone who's going to steal your work would steal it regardless of a notice you put on your cover page, and reputable producers already know that it's cheaper to just option or buy the material than to steal your concept and potentially defend their actions in court.
posted by herc at 10:51 AM on May 24, 2004

I found this book to be a decent treatment of this topic, if you would rather spend $25 for the same advice you are getting here for free:

Clearance and Copyright
by Michael C. Donaldson
ISBN: 187950572X
posted by piskycritter at 4:30 PM on May 24, 2004

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