One issue that frequently comes up in workshops or online forums is whether you need a copyright for your film or book. Occasionally people ask if they can use what is sometimes called the “poor man’s copyright,” where you send yourself your material in a sealed envelope, so you can later prove that you wrote it when you did.
First, the “poor man’s copyright” is perfectly useless. It is a myth that makes the rounds from time to time, usually because someone has just heard about it from someone else and wants to find out if it is true. Well, it isn’t. At best it might establish a date of mailing. But there are so many loopholes in that mailing to make a proof of anything problematic. A big problem is that one can easily steam open an envelope or mail an unsealed or empty envelope to oneself, and then put the document in the envelope and seal it up after the unsealed or empty envelope comes back in the mail.
Another misconception is that you need to formally register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to have a copyright. You actually have a copyright from the date of creation once you write your book, script, article, proposal, or anything else. You are similarly covered by a copyright when you draw something, compose music, record a song, or other creative work and record it in written, visual, or aural form, though you can’t copyright an idea or title. A title might be covered by trademark, if you are using it or intend to use it; but that’s a more complex subject, since you can choose from several dozen categories in which to register a trademark, and you can run into complications when you use a trademark in one geographic area and another person creates the same or similar mark in a different geographic area, depending on what categories you each are claiming. But for all practical purposes, if you write a book, book proposal, script or other written materials, you are dealing with copyright law and the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.
So essentially the question you are really asking is: “Should you ‘register’ a copyright?” with the U.S. copyright office. If you are writing a script, there is also a possibility of registering it with the WGA (Writers Guild of America), either in Los Angeles or New York, though most register it in Los Angeles, and some producers and agents/managers may ask you to do this. However, that’s not the same as registering a copyright with the government; a WGA registration is more like just putting it on a list that establishes your date of conception, and then you have to renew the WGA registration every 5 years if you register it in L.A., every 10 years if you register in New York.
By contrast, registering a work with the Copyright Office gives you a registered copyright as of the day of registration. The most efficient and economical way to do this is to register online, which is currently only $35 for an individual copyright, meaning just one item is being copyrighted by one author. If there are more authors or this is a combined registration of different properties, it is $55 to register online. It costs more to go the old fashioned postal mail route — $85 — and it will take 2 months or more to get your registration. Ideally, go through the online system, where you are walked through a step by step process to answer each question about the name of the author, date of registration, and other data. Next, you are directed to pay and upload a file with your material (although you can mail it in instead). Then, your answers are entered into the copyright form which is sent to you in a few months.
The costs can mount up if you have multiple items you want to register, so you might consider whether a copyright is really necessary. Take into consideration the fact that a copyright gives you the right to pursue your rights online or in court, but you have to take actions to enforce your copyright, which can be time consuming and expensive. For example, the most cost effective way of using a registered copyright is to prevent someone else using your material online, such as by sending this information to the offending website owner or to a web hosting company which is hosting a website with your copyrighted material. You just send a take-down notice with evidence of your copyright, and normally the hosting company will take it down if the website owner doesn’t.
However, it is very expensive to take any legal action in court to enforce a copyright, so a registration won’t be of much use if you are seeking compensation from someone who has improperly posted your material online and doesn’t have any money. But if you wait, maybe they will have money or they may arrange for someone else with money to use your material – at which time, you can inform them that you own the copyright and you aren’t giving your permission without a just compensation, whereupon you can negotiate the terms with them if they willing to do anything. Otherwise, you have the basis for taking them to court and claiming statutory damages, which may lead them to drop your material or seek an agreement from you.
In general, given the expense and limitations of a copyright, it is not necessary to register the copyright for a proposal or manuscript. The situation is different if you self-publish a book or if a traditional publisher publishes it and, as is usual, assigns the copyright to you. In this case, the publisher will generally file for the copyright in your name. If not, it is a good idea to file for copyright yourself, especially if you feel the book has a good commercial value for a general audience, since there is more risk of someone using your material or even filing a registration on a copy of your work.
Otherwise, if your work is unpublished, it may not be worth the time and expense, since publishers and agents are unlikely to use your material without you, since publishers generally want you as the author to be front and center to promote your book. And normally there isn’t the kind of money in a published book as there is in a produced film or recorded song. So with a book, unless it just makes you uncomfortable to not register a copyright, I feel it isn’t necessary – especially if you have written many books, because of the high cost involved. Even if you self-publish a book, it may not be necessary to register a copyright, especially if you have published multiple books, so the registration costs are high, since most self-published books average about 150 copies in sales.
So if someone pirates your book, it probably doesn’t matter whether your book’s copyright is registered or not, since it is unlikely you can do much more than send a take-down notice to the multiple sites offering free copies of your book and hope they take it down. If they don’t, it’s not normally cost-effective to try to pursue matters any further.
Likewise, if you write articles it is not necessary to copyright each one, especially when you are making the articles available for free. Just use them for promotional value, though if you combine the articles together into a book and self-publish it, you might get the copyright then.
By contrast, if you complete a script, treatment, or TV series or show proposal, it is a good idea to register a copyright, whether or not you get a WGA listing. Many producers for their own protection will want you to have a registered copyright, and often any NDA document they ask you to sign will have some language about your having only the protection in what you have copyrighted and not in any similar ideas they might have developed in house or obtained from another writer or other party.
Another reason for registering a copyright in the film world is because it is so competitive, and sometimes, if a script reader sees the potential in your idea, it could be shared with others, though it might undergo some further changes in the script. Then you could be out of the loop, although a registered copyright will make it more likely for you to be involved in the project going forward. Or it could lead to a payoff to get your copyrighted material signed over from you.
In sum, in the case of books and articles, it is generally not necessary to get a copyright unless you have high hopes for a large commercial sale or are willing to pursue take-down notices or a court case against someone who copies and sells your book and has the money to collect if you win. But if you write a script, TV show proposal, or treatment, get your material registered, since you will often need it to even get your script considered by producers, agents, managers, or others in the film industry.