Asked & Answered: Do I have to share?

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Q:

Patricia Asks:An acquaintance of mine knows I write screenplays and said he had an idea for me. It turned out to be a good one.I wrote a screenplay. The characters, story, and scenes were all mine.I wouldn't have written it if not for his idea but it was a very broad, general scenario…How much credit do I give him for his idea?

 

This video provides my answer:


AUDIO:

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TRANSCRIPT:

A:

Well Patricia, there are several layers we have to peel back here.

First, from a strictly legal point of view, there's no copyright protection for ideas. In fact a judge once said “Ideas are as free as the air”. So, unless you made some kind of a promise of shared credit (or money) (a contract, in other words) to your friend, you don't legally have to do so.

That said, if you want to keep this friend, it's a good idea to thank him properly with a “special thanks” credit or something. But, you need to be aware that doing so COULD be used as evidence against you, if there's ever a lawsuit. “If you don't owe me anything, why'd you thank me?”

Now, I'm kind of divided about whether it's a good idea to talk about the issue, and propose a solution. You might mention (as casually as possible), “Hey, by the way, I ran with that idea you GAVE me, and it's been some work, but it's turning out really good. I hope you don't mind if I mention you in the ‘special thanks' section of the credits”.

At the very least, this will open up a conversation, and if he says “Hey, sure”, you can follow it up with a quick e-mail that says “Thanks again. We've AGREED that you'll get mentioned in the “Special Thanks” part of the credits.

If he objects, and demands a better credit, or a share of the money you get from the script, well, you're free to make that agreement, but understand that it could make selling the thing a little bit more complicated. If you decide not to share, as I said that's your prerogative, but you should expect that he'll sue you later on if the thing gets made. But more importantly, you have an obligation to disclose these kinds of disputes to the prospective buyer of your script, so think carefully about how you handle the situation.

If you don't have a conversation and come to some understanding, and you decide not to put your friend in the ‘special thanks', , you still risk that lawsuit, but since you don't KNOW that your friend objects, you don't have to disclose anything to the buyer when selling the piece.

 

2 Responses to Asked & Answered: Do I have to share?

  1. This is the kind of thing those of us in the business (especially who live outside of Hollywood) ponder frequently.

    Thinking about the basic Golden Rule ethics (I like to try and include those in all my business decisions, na├»ve though it may be) – if a friend gives you an idea asking nothing , you execute the idea, and the idea actually makes you a reasonable amount of money…don’t you have a moral obligation to do something for that friend? Even if it’s just a “consultant’s fee” of a few hundred dollars? I tend to think so. Would working out a letter agreement about this early on be worth it, just so there’s an understanding?

    To be clear: this is not the friend’s business, it is yours. This is your livelihood; your skills, your talent and without you, there would be no work, just an amorphous “idea” – free, as you said. Unless your friend’s business is coming up with screenplay ideas for writers for money, or your friend says, “Hey, I have an idea for me to produce and you to write!”, he/she should not have any shared ownership, IMHO, and that should be clear from the start.

    But assuming you really want to be a mensch and do the right thing, would it be prudent to just have a letter agreement that if the work produces income, you’ll give your friend X dollars and a special thanks, just because it’s the right thing to do? Could you do this through an attorney in such a way as to prevent your friend from going off the deep end if the work really does well and suring you for ownership down the line? Since money does make some people crazy?

    • Thanks for your comment Melissa,

      You’ve hit the nail squarely on the head. It’s an ethics/morality issue. But, it’s complicated by the possibility that the friend thinks he’s entitled to more than you’re prepared to give. And that can be a real problem when trying to sell your script.

      So, yes, it’s prudent to get it in writing. Absolutely. But be careful how you ask. It’s always best to get the contract stuff done as early as you can. BEFORE the money starts to cloud people’s judgment.

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