If you have come up with an amazing idea for a film, television production, book or play and are keen to pitch it to potential publishers, producers or funders, take a moment to think about the best way to do it. It is important to protect your rights, while also maximising your chances of success.
Write it Down
The first step is to write down the magic that is in your head. Copyright does not protect ideas, but it will protect the original expression of those ideas. For example, your idea for a documentary film about graffiti artists will not be protected by copyright, but your treatment or script for the film will be. Once you have developed your idea into a written treatment, synopsis or script, the written expression of your idea, rather than the idea itself, will be protected by copyright.
You should develop your idea as much as possible. The more detail you are able to include, the stronger your claim of copyright ownership. For example, if you submit a short paragraph to a producer describing a television show that involves celebrity chefs demonstrating their favourite recipes, and the producer later produces a television show involving celebrity chefs, you are likely to have difficulty establishing copyright infringement. If, on the other hand, your proposal includes a series name, script ideas, a set design and a detailed description of a particular program, and the producer makes a program using all of those elements, you will be in a much stronger legal position.
Before submitting your proposal to anyone, affix the copyright symbol (©), your name and the year.
While copyright does not protect ideas, the law of confidential information can. You will be able to rely on the law of confidential information to protect your ideas provided that:
- they are secret or only known to a few people; and
- your ideas have been communicated in circumstances that made the person receiving the information aware of the confidential nature of the information.
Ideally, get the recipient to enter into a confidentiality agreement before you disclose your ideas to them. However, sometimes this may not be a practical option as it is often resisted by producers and publishers. Another approach is to affix a confidentiality notice on your work. See Arts Law’s Protecting Your Ideas information sheet (available at www.artslaw.com.au) for a sample confidentiality agreement and notice. If you get the opportunity to make an oral pitch, then begin the meeting by stating that the ideas you are presenting are confidential and must not be disclosed to anyone else without your consent. Confirm this in writing after the meeting by way of a letter or email.
Do your research
There are many ways to get your proposal into the hands of producers or publishers. Some writers are in the fortunate position of knowing influential people in the industry and are able to rely on their contacts to get their work into the hands of the right person. Many writers, however, have to rely on their own persistence to reach potential producers or publishers. Directories such as the Encore Directory and The Production Book can assist you in identifying potential opportunities. You should also conduct your own research before sending your work off. Some questions to ask include: What does this organisation do? What is their track record? What kinds of works are they likely to be interested in? Who at the organisation should I should correspond with? Do they accept unsolicited scripts and how does their review process work?
Always include a covering letter with your proposal explaining why you are submitting it to them. You might also want to request that they return the material if they decide that it is not of interest to them.
It is important to keep records of each draft you create and any completed works. Also keep records of whom you have sent copies to and file notes of any conversations you have with anyone about your work and their possible use of it.
The Australian Writers Guild (AWG) offers a script registration service. Your script is protected by copyright irrespective of whether it is registered with the AWG, but it does offer a way of publicly documenting your ownership of a particular work.
Protecting your idea does not mean that you can never share or divulge it, it just means taking some practical steps before you do so to reduce the risk of it being used without your permission. It helps to understand your legal rights and to be strategic and focused in the way you approach potential producers or publishers.
For further information see:
Screen Australia (formerly Australian Film Commission), ph: 02 8113 5800/ 1800 213 099
Australian Copyright Council, ph: 02 8815 9777
Australian Writers Guild, ph: 1300 552 228
Alison Davis is a former Arts Law Legal Officer.