Copyright, Registration & IPR

Copyright, Registration & Intellectual Property Rights
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The information here is given for guidance only. It is not intended to be taken as specific advice for individual circumstances. It is not to be regarded as constituting legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. You need to see a specialist lawyer for that.

The most important thing you must do as a writer is to protect yourself and your work. The issues regarding copyright and registration are very complex and change from country to country and there is so much advice out there it does get a little confusing.

How do I copyright my work?
Basically in Britain copyright is automatic; as soon as a work is realised in actual form - such as writing it down. This means you don't actually have to do anything other than write down your ideas to gain copyright.

So what's all the fuss about then and why do I need to register?
Registration is different to copyright. Neither can actually stop someone stealing your work, but they help to assert your rights in a court of law. Where copyright is your automatic, lawful right as author, registration is used as additional proof as part of a 'chain of evidence'. It gives your script or concept a time and date of existence in the eyes of the law. Should your copyright be breeched in the future, copyright law gives you the right to sue and registration provides a serious ally in your chain of evidence. It's like travel insurance, few people actually need it, but it's best to be safe than sorry. Registration is more insurance against copyright theft after-the-fact.

Although theft can be upsetting, registration gives you the opportunity to get some form of compensation if the worst happens. It is best get advice from the professional bodies that are directly involved, such as the guilds and official copyright bodies. I have a collection of useful advice and links to many of the official organisations and sites that deal with copyright below.

It is important that you register your work with a professional body as soon as you can. I register as soon as I have a full synopsis and character breakdown, then register again when I have a first draft script. This MUST be done BEFORE you even talk to anyone about your ideas, let alone when you send out a completed script. When you have registered your work, always keep a list of who you have pitched to and who has received any written material, including date, time and details. Also try to only send your work to more reputable companies - not just some guy you met in a pub who's friend is a film-maker. Also remember to keep all your development notes and drafts, as this also adds to your chain of evidence.

One of the most popular most popular methods in the UK is to send your script to yourself via registered or recorded post - this is also known as 'poor mans' registration' but there are huge problems with this, namely as it is not considered legal proof in a court of law, as this method can be tampered with, rendering it 'unsafe' evidence. Although it is 'proof' that you have written the script in the dated time-slot, it is not a legal certainty that it can be accepted as evidence in a court of Law, so my honest advice would be to register your work properly with a reputable body such as BECTU or the Writers' Guild of America or an official registration company for a small fee. I register my work with the WGA and BECTU, the British film Union which has a free script registration service for it's members. You are welcome to use the registered post method, but I am told it is next to useless.

Registered Post Method
All you do is put the script in an envelope attaching a letter to the script, stating you are doing this for proof of copyright, sign and date it with independent witnesses to sign and date it with their contact details. Seal all openings with a label and write " copyright @ YEAR, YOUR NAME ", across all openings. Then, seal with clear sellotape (so no one can tamper with it). Remember to mark it clearly on the outside: the script name, by yourself, copyright date, format: i.e. synopsis, treatment, script. So firstly you will not open it (thinking someone's sent you something really exiting through the post!) and secondly, you will know exactly what it is inside (as I'm sure you plan to write more than one screenplay!). Then you go to the Post Office and send it to yourself by registered or recorded post (i.e. something that is recorded and signed for). When you receive it put it in a very safe place - and DON'T OPEN IT!!!!!!
What ever you do - DO NOT OPEN IT when you receive it, as this is your proof and the whole point.

You can register your script with a recognised film body, this is the standard industry way and the safest. If you are sending your script to a seasoned professional, there is no need to put the registration number on the script, as it is assumed you have already registered anyway. If you are working with independent or low-end producers, it's optional to put the number on the cover. As long as you keep your registration documentation safe and keep records, that is the most important thing you can do.

The Writers' Guild of America

The W.G.A. will let non-members register their work for $20. (Members $10). I have actually done this via their website It's quite easy to do and takes around 20 minutes - and their staff are very helpful and efficient if you get into trouble. (I had a run in with the 'cookie monster' so remember to set your browser to accept cookies or it wont work!)

Protect Rite

A service of National Creative Registry, the creator and pioneer of online intellectual property registration. Instantly establish the date and time-of-creation of all your files, including screenplays, proposals, Web pages, treatments, inventions, lyrics and ideas. Founded in California in 1994 by writers and attorneys.

B.E.C.T.U. (The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinema & Theatre Union)
Script Registration Department, BECTU, 373-377 Clapham Road, London SW9 9BT
B.E.C.T.U. has a free for members script registration facility for its members. This option is only possible if you are already working in the industry (I think you are also able to join if you work in a Cinema or Theatre). You also have to be a fully paid up member as well (1% annual salary or £10 per month minimum)

If you are a member, send whatever you want copyrighting (script, synopsis, outline) with a letter confirming all the details and your membership number to the Script Registration Department at the address above.

B.E.C.T.U. also have an experienced Copyright Consultant who can provide quick, free and common sense advice to members on individual issues such as contracts. They also have a copyright booklet entitled 'Protecting Ideas and Copyright' setting out clear and understandable basic advice on how to approach copyright matters. The booklet is free to members (and was available at £5 to non members) and is available from:

If you become a member of Raindance (£25 per year) you can register your scripts for free. Membership also gives discounts on a multitude of film-making courses in London, including script workshops.

I have not done this before as we do not have a copyright office here in the UK, so I am unsure of the procedure, but list the US Copyright Office contact details below:

US Copyright Office

Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington DC 20599 USA
24 hr info: +1(800)688-9889 Tel: +1(202)707-300 Forms hotline: +1(202)707-9100
You can copyright material for life + 70 years!

This can be expensive, but at least you can be sure. I personally wouldn't go that far unless someone I didn't know wanted to purchase my script, I was dealing with a company in a different country and if I didn't have an Agent. Many people without Agents find an Entertainment lawyer the next best thing, as they can also sort out contracts and make sure you are legally protected. Also, if a producer has to deal with a lawyer, they will know you are serious and are less likely to compromise you.

I will soon add some more links for Entertainment Lawyers. For now I have two to keep you going:

Spiller Law
Spiller Law advises businesses, individuals, musicians, artists, filmmakers and sports personalities. Our offices are located in San Francisco, California.

Harbottle & Lewis
Harbottle & Lewis provides high quality legal services to organisations and individuals, in particular those working in the media and entertainment industries. Based in London, UK.


The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook
Published annually by A&C Black, it lists everything from a summary of Copyright Law to Literary Agents. "A must for established and aspiring writers" - The Society of Authors.
PO Box 19, St. Neots, Cambs PE19 8SF
Tel: 01480 212666 Fax: 01480 405014

The British Copyright Council
The British Copyright is primarily a consultative body and liaison committee and does not operate a copyright advice service and do not provide a copyright service. They advise to contact a specialist lawyer for detailed information on Copyright Law, but explain copyright briefly in their information sheet. It is available as a pdf download in the information section under "How do I register my copyright?"

British Literary and Artistic Copyright Association

The UK national group of the International Literary and Artistic Association (ALAI). It is a forum for discussion of matters affecting the rights of authors and other copyright owners. A membership organisation


Butterworths have around 33 publications on all forms of Intellectual Property, incl.: "A Users' Guide to Copyright" by Michael F. Flint (Butterworth 1997) £40

Copyright World

Journal focusing exclusively on international copyright law.

Parchment House, 13 Northburgh Street, London EC1V 0AH
Design and Artists Copyright Society - DACS - is a not-for-profit membership organisation which exists to promote and protect the copyright of visual creators in the UK and worldwide. DACS says: "Copyright is a complex area of law, and there is no substitute for individual advice. But we have compiled a wide range of fact sheets on copyright and related issues affecting visual creators and artistic works which you may find helpful. All these are downloadable as PDF files. Please note that while all attempts are made to reflect the law accurately at the time of writing, this information should not be taken as an exhaustive statement of the law, and should not be relied upon as such.

Her Majesties Stationary Office (HMSO)

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The full monty is available here. I need to research contact details.

Intellectual Property Institute IPI promotes awareness and understanding of IP law. It commissions research and has a range of publications

Producers' Alliance for Cinema & Television (PACT)
45 Mortimer Street, London W1N 7TD
Rights Clearances for Film and Television Productions by Stephen Edwards, 1997 £20
The Music Copyright Guide for Film & TV Production by Ivan Chandler £20
Art of The Deal by Dorothy Viljoen £35

World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)

WIPO is responsible for promoting and protecting all forms of intellectual property through the international treaties it administers including the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT)

FACT's member companies include major British and American film companies, media manufacturers and distributors, as well as companies within the television and satellite TV industries. It was formed to combat counterfeiting, piracy and misuse of its members' products and is increasingly investigating copyright infringement involving DVD and other digital formats. The site has a facility for making reports about piracy. It also includes information on relevant legislation.