November 9

OLD FLAME (Classic Post)

Washington GifCalee of Los Angeles writes:

I wrote a screenplay 3 years ago that won a fellowship but was never sold. It was based on an obscure historical figure using research from the public domain. Recently, a book came out about the same guy with the same name as my screenplay. The agent is sending the book around town but it’s boring and brushes over the main dramatic point of my screenplay. Is there anything I should do to revive interest in my script or to make it known that if someone is interested in the book, there’s already an award-winning screenplay out there, even if it was written before the book? Also- do I have any legal rights to the title?

There is always a way to revive interest in your screenplay. Seek a director or actor for a lead role, search for a qualified and devoted producer to work with you, or find a bunch of money for production. Any of these things will revive interest. In fact, writing another good script can revive interest in a previous script.

As far as submitting your script to people interested in the book, if you can find them, why not? However, don’t be discouraged if they are not interested. It is very unlikely any of them will want to review your script if they are considering the book. It only creates potential legal issues for them if they do.

As far as the title being the same, it happens all the time. Titles are generally exempt from copyright protection. Sometimes trademark or other tradename protection is available, but even this usually does not apply to spec screenplay titles. You likely have no real protection. On the other hand, if you believe the author used your script in the creation of his or her book, you do have some rights. Proof is always an issue, but if you have some evidence that this is the case, you should definitely consult an intellectual property attorney.

Good luck with your script and, most importantly, keep writing.

October 1

FIRST CLASS (Classic Post)

PROFESSOR WAGSTAFFSam from Philly asks:

I am an amateur writer, and I am looking to take a class, but I’m not sure which is best suited for me. What I am trying figure out, is the class offered by the New York Film Academy better or the same as a class at a local college? Thanks for the help.


Honestly, I have no idea. I haven’t taken any classes from New York Film Academy or from your local college. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s what I have looked for in the past when I took classes:

Experience of the teacher. I prefer to learn from instructors that have at least some reasonable professional experience.

Curriculum. I personally prefer courses that involve both writing and theory. All theory and it tends to mean very little. Many courses require you to write outlines, scenes and pages and subject them to peer review. This, in conjunction with theory, can be helpful. This is one of the reasons weekend seminars are not very effective from my point of view. You spend all your time on theory and have no guided practice. You walk out thinking you now know how to write a decent screenplay, but when you actually sit down to write, theory is just theory and you must face the same hard issues in your writing that you had before. There are no quick shortcuts to learning to write strong, professional quality work.

An important caveat to peer review is that in a screenwriting class, most of your peers are awful. They will never be good writers. You are taking input from people who, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Consider every word they say, but think through it and make your own judgments about your work. One of your goals as a writer is to surround yourself with quality input as quickly as possible. Bad input is sometimes distracting and often disheartening. At an early stage, it is a necessary evil, but you must make it through the fire.

Tuition. Do not get sucked into paying a fortune for any course, especially a short course, that promises to deliver huge results. It won’t happen. Short courses are like books – you get a lot to think about, but you still have to work it out for yourself through lots of writing over a long period of time. Tuition for screenwriting courses should be in line with other similar college courses.

Good luck finding a course.

June 22

CAN I USE THAT? (Classic Post)

William from NYC asks:copyright gif

I’ve been playing with the idea of writing a spec screenplay based loosely on an obscure made for TV movie. I’ve done some searching and haven’t come across any production of it or future production of it. Should I just write my screenplay that will probably bear very little resemblance to this film anyway?

[Disclaimer: Nothing contained on this website should be interpreted as specific legal advice. You need to consult with an attorney about your specific situation for that. This is just thoughts on a weblog.]

I am assuming your question relates to whether you have the legal right to create and sell such a screenplay. The answer depends upon what you mean by “based loosely on”. Although much is written about the laws protecting intellectual property, in practice, the extent to which the influence of a prior work is protected from subsequent use is a grey area. While the law seeks to protect the owners of intellectual property from unauthorized use, it also seeks to protect the free-flow of ideas. No idea is actually “original”. Rather, all ideas are inspired by other ideas. The question is, when does “inspiration” become “theft.” Here are the basic rules applicable to your situation.

The literary material upon which the television movie is based (the screenplay or teleplay) is protected by copyright, as is the television movie itself. However, U.S. copyright protection protects only “the expression of ideas” and not the ideas themselves. In a practical sense, that means a story about a heist during a hurricane does not violate the copyright of another story about a heist during a hurricane unless it borrows specific expressions of that idea, such as characters, plot elements, dialogue, or other concrete manifestations of the idea. Here is an extreme example of a work that clearly violates a prior work’s copyright.

In your case, whether you can legally create and sell such a screenplay will depend upon what aspect of the original teleplay or television movie you use. If it is as general as a general idea for the story, you are likely safe. If you intend to borrow plot elements, characters, or dialogue, then you are more likely to have a problem. If, as you say, your screenplay will bear little resemblance to the teleplay, then it will be an original work and the fact that you were inspired by this previous work will be of no legal significance. I suggest that, from the outline stage up, you look to make sure you have not borrowed plot, dialogue, characters or other elements from this prior work that inspired you.