Intellectual Property and Theft

I attended a fascinating own-it seminar this week – “The IP Pyramid” – which dealt with the ins and outs of copyright law within the media industry. It was presented by a media lawyer and a TV producer, and involved several case studies. As it happens, one of the case studies emerged from a conversation between the producer and me when I was asking for advice…

Back in 2007, I co-wrote SLEEPER, a feature screenplay with two colleagues, Paul Blinkhorn and Steven Hutchinson. It received quite a buzz at the time, with some big Hollywood names expressing an interest in attaching themselves to the project. Unfortunately, the director proved to be the wrong man for the job, so we took our script from him. since then he’s been rather forcefully claiming that the screenplay is his, as he “copyrighted it according to UK law”, and that we were trying to steal it from him. It’s been pretty nasty.
Now, one thing I already knew about intellectual property was that copyright lies with the creator of the work, but the difficulty lies in proving authorship. You can’t post a screenplay to yourself, as this proves nothing, so you need a paper trail. What I didn’t know was that a digital paper trail is perfectly acceptable, and this we have in abundance.
However, my concern was this: The director had come up with the original idea – “A man (ex-Special Forces) uncovers a terrorist plot and his wife and daughter are killed in retribution. Teaming up with a pretty CIA agent, the man has to stop the terrorists and achieve revenge”. He then wrote a screenplay which had been sent to various agents. It so happens that I considered the screenplay unfilmable, and barely readable. Those of us still attached to the project after reading it decided that the only course of action was to throw it out and start again, which we did. The new screenplay had some similar names, and the basic idea, but the rest was completely original. Ultimately though, the original idea (nebulous as it was) was the director’s.
I figured that this would be a problem if things ever came to court, but some interesting facts were revealed in the seminar. The most important is this: you cannot copyright an idea. You can only copyright the expression of that idea. Therefore, even though it was the original idea of the director, the script is the intellectual property of my colleagues and me (copyright remains with the creator, you can only transfer the rights to use that property). If we wanted to, we could easily prove in a court of law that the screenplay was ours.

As of writing, the project has been renamed, and currently has a “hot new director” attached. We’ve decided to let it go for now, as it’s not worth the trouble unless the project starts getting somewhere – as the media lawyer says “you could get an injunction, but they’re not cheap!”

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