If you write a screenplay, don’t send it out to others just yet. Before you let anyone else look at your screenplay, protect it first. While the chances of someone stealing your screenplay is remote, you can completely eliminate that possibility just by protecting your work. The two ways to do that are registration with the Writer’s Guild or applying for a copyright from the U.S. Copyright Office.
Theoretically, when you create a screenplay, you automatically get a copyright. However, it’s best to get formal copyright protection by filing for a copyright. In the United States, you can file for a copyright through the U.S. Copyright Office where the typical fee for a manuscript copyright is $35.
Some people think that mailing a copy of a manuscript to yourself will work as a poor man’s copyright protection since the stamp cancellation date on the envelope can prove when you sent the manuscript to yourself. However, you can always mail a non-sealed envelope to yourself and then stick anything you want into the envelope when you receive it. That’s why this poor man’s copyright method is next to worthless and likely won’t stand up in court.
As an alternative to filing for an official copyright, you can also register your manuscript with the Writer’s Guild, which is the union that protects mostly screenwriters, but their registration service also protects novelists, playwrights, and practically any creative work you care to register with them. Just send them a copy of your file and for $20 they’ll time stamp the date they received your file.
Now if someone tries to steal your work, the Writer’s Guild can show the courts when they received your manuscript. A thief will have to prove that they registered the work at an earlier date, which they won’t be able to do.
So your choice boils down to filing for an official copyright ($35) or a Writer’s Guild registration ($20). In either case, the basic idea is to have a third-party time stamp your work to prove that you created it on a specific date. Now if someone steals from you, they’ll have to prove that they created that work at an earlier date, which will be impossible.
So which method should you use? The Writer’s Guild registration is cheaper ($20 vs. $35) but only lasts for five years. After five years, you have to pay to renew your registration again.
On the other hand, copyrights last for the lifetime of the author plus an extra 70 years. So even though the Writer’s Guild registration is cheaper, it doesn’t last as long.
For screenplays, teleplays, and stage plays, a five year time period is probably adequate. For novels and non-fiction works, renewing registration protection every five years will likely be a nuisance, so you’ll be better off paying the initially higher U.S. Copyright fee instead to get a lifetime of protection. One form of protection is enough so you don’t need to file for an official copyright and register with the Writer’s Guild too. Just pick one method and you should be fine.
Remember, registration or copyright means nothing if you drastically modify your manuscript, so don’t register or copyright your work too soon. Whichever method you choose, consider some type of legal protection to guard your work. If you’ve put hours of work into a manuscript, the last thing you want is for someone to steal it and get away with it.