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Asked and Answered: Is a friend’s suggestion in my screenplay ‘authorship’?

Q:  What happens if a friend, or someone else, makes a suggestion that you think is good and without written permission include the line, scene, or piece of business in your screenplay. Is there now a copyright issue?

Assuming, for the moment, that the friend just blurted out this suggestion, and  you've decided that it really works for your screenplay…. technically, that IDEA is not protected by copyright or any other law.  It's essentially a GIFT, and you're legally free to use it, or not.    IT gets slightly more complicated for lines of dialogue, or original ‘bits', but basically, if they're just  GIVEN to you, you don't owe the friend anything more than your gratitude.

Of course,   This doesn't mean that your “friend” won't sue you, or even that if he does, you'll win.   (And,  even if you do… lawsuits are VERY expensive, even for the winners).

You see, this is actually less about the copyright, than it is about the contract between you and the friend.

“Wait!”, you say.  “There is no contract!”

Are you sure?

Despite Samuel Goldwyn's famous quip that “An oral contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on”, Contracts need not be in writing to be enforceable.  So, let's look more deeply at the situation.  If you made your friend any kind of promise that he or she relied upon in giving you the suggestion, you MAY have just entered into an oral contract… a collaboration agreement, and this person is now your co-writer.

Now, joint authorship does depend on the mutual intent of the parties to co-own the work in question, so if you're careful not to make any promises, or give any indication that you'll “share”, you should be ok…

But, ultimately, you have to let your conscience be your guide.

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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