“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.
Q: I applied to write a short for a small independent film company when they advertised for a writer. I confirmed that I would write for credit only.
We went back and forth with story ideas and the director sent a couple of very rough drafts with just a few scenes to give an idea of what he wanted. I finished the script and sent it to them and the producer told me they were happy and he would let me know when they were shooting it in case they needed changes. I have not heard from them since and they are not responding to my emails. It may be that the project has fallen apart but I have no way of knowing. What is my position if they produce the script and do not give me a writing credit?
A: This question emphasizes the importance of the lawyers' mantra: “get it in writing”. In this case, a written agreement would have served BOTH parties.
Unfortunately, unless the deal between the parties is in a written document, it will be very difficult to prove what either was entitled to, with respect to the film. This is especially true when, as with many films, the original script gets re-written before shooting. A string of emails between the parties can sometimes substitute for a formal, written contract, since it may establish the parties' intentions. But, based on the facts presented here, even with the above-referenced email evidence, the producers may not actually have any legal right to produce a film based on this script. This is because, under copyright law, unless there's a signed, written contract granting the producer the rights to the script, or stating that the script is a “work made for hire”, the copyright in the script belongs to the writer.
So, if you learn that a film has been (or better still, is being) produced based on your script, you should have an attorney look into the matter for you. Oh, and next time…. (you know what I'm going to say).
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.