Asked & Answered: Should a writing team wait to have an agreement among themselves?

q“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.

This is intended as general information only and  does not establish an attorney-client relationship.  It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter.  We will not be responsible for readers' detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.

Q:    I'm currently working on a screenplay with four other screenwriters.  We are in the beginning stages of character/plot development.  Should we have a legal contract drawn up to protect us against theft or should we wait until the screenplay is optioned before we think about the legal aspects?  We don't have a screenplay as of yet, so I figured we shouldn't worry too much, but we are accomplishing more towards completion with each meeting we attend (currently every Saturday).

A:  This is a very important question.    Don't wait.   I believe that every time writers work together to create material, they should have a carefully thought-out collaboration agreement.  It's not about protecting yourselves against theft  (Copyright Law takes care of that).  The purpose of a collaboration agreement is to articulate the nature and scope of the relationship, ownership, creative and business controls over the material created.

Essentially, a writing collaboration is a business partnership, and in some ways, a bit like a marriage. The collaboration agreement is the ‘prenuptial' agreement.  It sets forth the rights of the parties and the procedures to be followed if the relationship breaks down, or if one of the collaborators dies or becomes incapable of finishing the work.

On my theatre law blog (http://theatrelawyer.com) I've written a series of blog posts, (linked below) that outline this in greater depth.  Although those posts are directed at theatre collaborations, many of the issues and principles discussed apply to film and television writing teams as well.

While there are plenty of “form” collaboration agreements available on the internet, in books, and elsewhere, entering into a collaboration agreement should be looked at in the same way someone would view starting any other new business.  The advice and counsel  of a knowledgeable, experienced entertainment attorney is invaluable in protecting the interests of all concerned.  The cost of preparing such an agreement is negligible compared to the losses that can be suffered if a project is abandoned, or winds up mired in litigation.

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