Legal How-To: Copyrighting Your Screenplay

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on February 25, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

So you've written a screenplay. Before you share it with others, you'll want to legally protect your script by copyrighting it.

While your work is technically copyrighted the moment you create it, certain legal protections exist only when you register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. For example, registration with the Copyright Office is required before you can file a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

A written treatment or outline of a fully developed, unique story should be enough to qualify for copyright protection, and a completed script usually does. Here's a general overview of what screenwriters need to know about the process:

Registering screenplays through the Copyright Office's online system is now the primary method to register works.

Online registration has several advantages, including: a lower filing fee, faster processing, secure electronic payment options (versus a check or money order), the ability to upload the script as an electronic file, and online status tracking.

Here's how to register your screenplay online:

  1. Registration Process Overview, Screen 1. Start on Copyright Office registration website, input your login information, and click on "Register a New Claim."
  2. Screen 2. Click on "Start Registration."
  3. Screen 3. Select "Work of the Performing Arts" in the drop down menu.
  4. Screen 4. Select "Title of the Work Being Registered" and input the title of your script.
  5. Screen 5. Select "No" if your work hasn't been published (which is most likely). Remember, your work isn't considered published when you send it to agents or producers.
  6. Screen 6. Put your name as the author and select "No" for the Work for Hire question.
  7. Screen 7. Check off the "Text" box.
  8. Screen 8. If you're the claimant, put down your name and address (or your P.O. box).
  9. Screen 9. Leave the "Material Excluded/Previous Registration" page blank if this is your first registration and your script is original. If it's based on someone else's material, identify it in the "Other" box.
  10. Rights & Permissions Information. Add your name and address again.
  11. Correspondent. You know the drill -- name and address.
  12. Mail Certificate. Input the address to which you want the copyright certificate mailed.
  13. Special Handling. Leave blank.
  14. Certification. Check the "I certify" box and type in your name.
  15. Review Submission. Review your information. If you click the "Save Template" button, it'll save your information, so for future registrations, you'll only need to change the title of the work and year of completion.

Then you just pay the registration fee (currently $35) and wait to receive your proof of registration.

Need More Help?

Even after you've copyrighted your screenplay, infringement disputes may still occur. If you're involved in such a dispute, or if you need additional help with protecting your screenplay, you may want to consult an experienced entertainment lawyer in your area.

Are you facing a legal issue you'd like to handle on your own? Suggest a topic for our Legal How-To series by sending us a tweet @FindLawConsumer with the hashtag #HowTo.

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