“Asked and Answered” is an occasional feature of this blog. From time to time, I'll answer some of the most frequently asked questions I receive in my practice.
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Q: When submitting spec screenplays to production companies writers are usually asked to sign a standard release form. The form often include a line stating that if a production company uses material ‘containing features and elements similar to or identical with' the submitted material then the writer cannot seek any compensation. Does signing such a form affect a writer's copyright?
A: I'm glad you asked this question because I see these releases all the time. This kind of submission agreement is commonly used by producers and production companies when accepting scripts.
A “release” is essentially a waiver of claims, and attorneys routinely refer to this these submission agreements as “licenses to steal”. By signing such an agreement, the writer making the submission promises not to sue or make any claims relating to copyright infringement or theft of the ideas ideas embodied in the material he submits. Basically, the writer is saying “I trust you, Mr. Producer, not to use my material without compensating me, but if you do, I promise not to sue you.”
So, does the submission release affect the writer's copyright? Not specifically. But, it does affect the writer's right to enforce his or her copyright. What good, really, is a right if you can't enforce it?
My advice to writers is to never, ever sign this kind of release. Producers and production companies typically will accept submissions made by agents, managers, attorneys they know, and other industry insiders without such a release. So, focus your energy on finding effective representation.