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Asked & Answered: Contests and the risk of idea theft.

Q:  I often think that when I submit my screenplays for viewing or to a contest, “What would keep someone from taking the idea?” Let me clairfy what I mean. I send in a screeplay for a contest or for someone (producer, whoever) to read. They like the idea but dont purchase my screenplay but instead write one just like it or have someone write it just like it. Change some details here and there and wa-la! They have a winning screenplay and can take all the credit. I never hear back from them and think its just another “no”. Little do I know that my movie is being optioned and produced by someone else under the new screenplay name.

This is something that I think about but cant really see how it can be controlled. (unless its just too obvious.)

A:  This is a valid concern.  Since ideas are not protected by copyright law, we're forced to look into other legal theories when ideas are “stolen”.  The simple fact is, when you share an idea, you're giving it to the recipient freely, unless there's some kind of agreement (i.e., an implied or express CONTRACT) stating that you'll be compensated, hired, etc., if the recipient wants to use the idea.

With contests, it's important to read the fine print of the entry submission terms and conditions. Fairly often, these documents  contain onerous provisions explicitly stating that no such agreements exist, or worse, explicitly giving the contest operators some or all rights in the material you're submitting.    Unfortunately these kinds of contests abound, so it's incumbent on the writers to think carefully about which contests to enter.    Enter only those that have terms and conditions you can live with.  If the contest is run by a producer, and not some kind of writer's organization, be skeptical.

The good news is that many of the better-known contests are very  reputable, and the judges are chosen for their discretion.  After all, if word gets out that ideas are routinely stolen through a contest,  that contest will lose its credibility.

So, as I've said often in this column, read the fine print, and  be careful with whom you do business.  This goes for contests, producers, co-writers, used car dealers, etc.  Trust your instincts, and don't take unwarranted risks.

If you're concerned that your material has been stolen, consult an entertainment lawyer.

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.

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