Intro & disclaimer

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This really happened.

I met a guy in one of the AOL chat rooms. He works in town as a stunt man, which I thought was cool, and he thought it was cool that I work as a screenwriter. Turned out that just as everyone in Los Angeles is supposed to have a screenplay, he had his, and he wanted me to read it.

The concept sounded decent, worth reading, worth taking the time to fight cross-town traffic and meet in a dim, crowded bar. I'd asked him to send the script in the mail, but he didn't want to. "After all," he said over the phone, "I don't really know who you are. We met by chance on the computer. How do I know if you're trustworthy?"

So, hey, cool, we met for lunch, partly for him to get to know me, but mainly for me to pick up his script to read. After the usual chit-chat, he handed the script over. I asked if he intended it as a writing sample or a spec script. He looked confused.

I explained that some writers used their work as writing samples to target writing assignments, while others are more focused on trying for the big bidding-war-type spec-script sale.

"Oh," he said. "I don't really want to be a screenwriter, I figure it's just a good way for me to break into the business."

That's red flag number one, for those of you keeping score at home.

I glanced at the date on the script: some month in mid-1990. I asked him about it.

"Yeah," he said sheepishly. "You wouldn't believe how many times I've re-written this thing."

Red flag number two, and a biggie -- the Writer Who Gets Obsessed With One Single Pet Idea.

"But I do have another concept, if you're interested," he said, and proceeded to describe a murder-mystery plot involving identical triplets. Meanwhile, I glanced at the first page of the script. Wrong format, of course. Wrong typeface, wrong layout. Red flags everywhere, snapping in the breeze.

He noticed my perusal of his script. "By the way, the ending on that version really sucks," he cautioned. "I've written a whole new act three that's a lot better."

My confusion must have showed. "I'm curious," I said uncertainly, "why I've just been given the bad version."

He gave me a sly look. "I really don't know anything about you. If you decide to steal this, then at least I know you're stealing the version that sucks."

Yup, really happened, swear to God.

Now, this writer was obviously doing a lot of things wrong, several of which could conceivably provide inspiration for a column. But I want to focus on just one misstep: his fear that someone in Hollywood was going to rip off his great screenplay.

The topic, if you haven't guessed already, is plagiarism.

To get noticed, you've got to put your work out there, but the more you put it out there, the less you can control -- or even document -- who has access to it. And the better your screenplay is, the quicker those copy machines gear up, and the faster the sucker get spread out all over town.

So how can you protect yourself?

First, a quick run-through of the basics: yes, register your screenplay with the Writer's Guild. First drafts preferred -- you can always add the revised versions as you go along. Yes, keep track of all submissions, log phone calls, and maintain a paper trail whenever possible. No, you don't have to register the script to copyright it -- or put that cute little © on it -- legally, it's copyrighted the second you write it. Yes, there are advantages to registration with the Copyright Office; it establishes a public record, and in an infringement suit, allows you to sue for statutory damages and attorney's fees. No, you can't copyright a title -- but titles can be trademarked, and the MPAA has a way of registering intended use of a title, if you're at all close to production. Yes, there is the persistent rumour that you send a copy of your screenplay by registered mail and not open it to insure the date of authorship, but no, I've never heard of anyone actually doing this. Yes, there are other registration services than the Writer's Guild that are faster, cheaper, and more convenient. But I always figured hell, I may not be in the Guild, but at least I can register my scripts there. And finally... No, I'm not a lawyer, so don't believe any of this without further confirmation, it may all be completely wrong and please don't sue me.

There's most of the good advice you can probably get from any number of sources. The Writer's Guild, for example, has a brochure on plagiarism that's quite good, highly recommended.

Now I'd like to add another idea. As Paul Harvey would intone, here's the rest of the story.

The screenwriter who gave me the 'bad' version of his script to read was making a classic error. He got it exactly wrong. He was being overly protective of his screenplay -- and openly forthcoming with his story ideas. Remember his pitch, the murder-mystery involving identical triplets? According to him, that was his next project, his next best idea. It also happened to be unregistered, unprotected and undocumented. There is no record of our meeting on it. And he didn't even follow up with a letter stating, "Thank you for allowing me to present my concept concerning the triplets murder mystery."

This suspicious fellow left his best idea just sitting there, ready for the taking.

As a writer, you should know that your concepts are far more vulnerable than your screenplay. Because really, nobody in Hollywood steals screenplays anyway. It's usually easier to just buy the damn thing.

Think about it. Imagine a writer has sent a finished script to an unscrupulous producer. The producer says, "Aha! Great screenplay. But I won't buy it -- I'll steal it instead!"

Okay, so now the producer has a stolen movie idea, some characters to re-name, maybe even some kind of loose structure. Next step, he's got to find a writer to write this faux screenplay.

No problem -- he just reads lots of scripts, conducts interviews, hoping to find a decent writer who'll write the thing the way he wants to see it. And whose fee isn't way beyond what it would have cost to buy the original screenplay in the first place.

But before any writing happens, the producer must negotiate the writer's deal, and perhaps wait for that writer's availability. Finally, the writer starts writing. Six months later he turns in something that may or may not be a good execution of the stolen idea.

And for all this, what has the producer gained? The potential for a lawsuit, and the dubious value of arriving second place to the marketplace with the original idea.

Uh-uh. No, your average Hollywood producer or studio executive would rather buy your script if they love it enough to steal -- and then ruin it on the way to production. (Typical of the writer's fate in Hollywood -- you still get screwed, but at least you get paid.)

Another danger is that the producer will wake up in the middle of the night six weeks after rejecting your pitch, yelling "I've got it! Murder mystery! Triplets! It's never been done!"

My last few columns have dealt with the importance of finding that great screenplay concept. Let's say you've got one. So how do you protect it once you've found it?

WRITE THE DAMN THING. The sooner it's written, the sooner it can be registered and protected. And all the better to head off Michael Crichton's version of it, anyway.

DON'T TELL. No matter how tempting it is to blurt out your brilliance, the safest bet is to keep mum. To producers, directors, executives, assistants -- and especially other writers. This carries an added advantage. Some writer, I forget who, held the policy of "only tell your story on paper." He maintained that when he told the story verbally, his need to communicate it was satisfied, and he'd lose the impulse to write it. I'm inclined to agree.

SEND A FOLLOW-UP LETTER. If you choose to pitch the idea for whatever reason, send a follow-up letter that details what concepts were discussed. This is also a handy way to keep track of people and dates as well.

Oh -- I nearly forgot. The fellow's script, the one with the bad version of Act III. It's currently at the bottom of the to-read pile, and I don't know when -- or if -- I'll get to it. And it's pretty certain I'll never get to read his supposed good version.

That's okay. I'm busy on a new idea, anyway. A murder mystery involving triplets, of course. Remember -- the best time to protect your screenplay is before you write it.

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