Entertainment & Intellectual Property Law

Copyright Basics for Filmmakers

logo A form of intellectual property, a copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”  Remember, copyright does not protect an idea, but rather the expression of that idea.  Copyright also does not extend to titles, names, short phrases or slogans and factual information (although, in some cases, trademark protection may be available).

Copyright protects both published and unpublished works and applies to the following types of work:

  • Literary works, such as novels, poems, stories
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

A copyright holder possesses what is commonly referred to as “bundle of rights.”  These rights include the exclusive right to (1) make copies of the work; (2) distribute the work; (3) publicly perform the work; (4) publicly display the work; and (5) make derivative copies of the work.

As illustration, imagine that Sequel Films is the copyright holder in the film NEVER SAY DIE 5. This copyright holder status affords Sequel Films, or an authorized representative, the exclusive right to license the distribution of NEVER SAY DIE 5 through theatrical release.  Only Sequel Films can authorize the playing of the film’s DVD at Free Friday Flicks in Any Town, USA.  And, only Sequel Films, can produce NEVER SAY DIE 6 (a sure fire hit). As you can see, copyright protection is crucial to a filmmaker’s commercial exploitation of her film.

Federal registration of your script or film is no longer necessary to secure copyright protection, but registration with the U.S. Copyright Office does provide important additional benefits, such as allowing you to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement.  The minimal fees associated with registration is well worth the investment.

Federal copyright registration is an easy and inexpensive process.  Simply visit the U.S. Copyright Office at www.copyright.gov to submit an online application through the eCO (electronic copyright office) program.  The online fill in the blank process takes less than thirty minutes from start to finish.  Choose Form PA for registering a screenplay or completed motion picture and complete the following fields:

Title of the Work –Identify the title of the work and provide a brief description of the work.

Publication Status – If the work has not been published, select “no” and identify the year that the work was completed. If the work has been published, identify the year the work was completed, the month, day and year of first publication and the country of first publication.

Author – Identify the Author of the work by first and last name. If the work is a ‘work made for hire’, identify the full legal name of the entity for whom the work was created.  Remember, a ‘work made for hire’ is defined as: (1) “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment”; or (2) “a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective  work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.”

On this page, the registrant will also identify the citizenship or domicile of the Author, as well as the date of birth and date of death (if applicable) of the Author.

Finally, if applicable, identify whether the work is an anonymous or pseudonymous work.

Author’s Contribution – Here, indicate what contribution the Author has made to the work.  For example, if the work being registered is a screenplay, mark the “Text” box.

Copyright Claimant – Sometimes, the Copyright Claimant will be the same as the Author.  Other times, such as in the event of an assignment of the copyright, the Copyright Claimant will be different from the Author.  The Copyright Claimant is the person or entity claiming ownership in the work.  If the Copyright Claimant is different from the Author, identify how the Copyright Claimant is claiming ownership in the work (such as via assignment), referred to as a “transfer statement” by the Copyright Office.

Preexisting Material – Indicate whether there are any limitations or exclusions to the copyright claim.  For example, if the film contains any preexisting copyrighted materials, then exclude them here.

Rights and Permissions – Identify the person or entity responsible for managing the copyright.  A registrant has the option to authorize a third party, such as an entertainment attorney, to manage the registration on behalf of the claimant.

Correspondence – This field requests the contact information for the person or entity authorized to speak to the Copyright Office regarding the application.  A registrant can identify a third-party, such as an entertainment attorney, to speak with the Copyright Office regarding questions about the copyright application.

Once the form is complete, the registrant will be instructed to make payment of the required registration fee (ranging from $35 – $55).  Upon receipt of payment, the registrant will be prompted to satisfy the deposit requirements.  Depending upon the type of work being registered, a registrant can either electronically upload or mail the required deposit copies.  If the application is accepted, a registration generally will be issued within four to eight months of filing.

Looking for a copyright lawyer? If you have any questions regarding copyright law or need assistance securing a federal copyright registration for your work, please contact Stacey Davis at sdavis@staceydavislaw.com or 205.777.9906.

Stacey Davis is an entertainment attorney who advises filmmakers and other motion picture industry professionals on copyright law as well as other intellectual property and entertainment law issues. www.staceydavislaw.com