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Asked and Answered: Is my friend a co-author/collaborator?

Q:  Scott asks:

I've written two screenplays to completion and am starting on my third.  A friend of mine wants to help collaborate on the project.

He has never written anything before and probably wouldn't contribute to any of the actual writing.  Instead, he would help by providing second party insight/ideas on the material I come up with.

When it comes down to writing credits, would both of our names go on the script?

I have no problem with giving him credit, but from a legal perspective: Is  there a minimum amount of work required of someone to become a co-author of  a screenplay?

A:  An “Author” is someone who contributes original material and participates in the process of creating a work. There's no legal “minimum” amount of work required to receive a writing credit… It's a function of the intent between the parties.  What you're describing sounds more like some kind of story consulting, rather than actual writing.    So, no, I don't think your friend should be credited as a writer on the script.  As a writer, though, you aren't really in position to promise any other kind of credit… That will be up to the producer(s) of the film based on the script.  The best you can offer is that you will use your “best efforts” to obtain a particular “story consultant” or “special thanks”  (or whatever) credit for your friend.  You can promise to pay your friend a portion of your earnings from the sale of the screenplay, if you like, but be cautious that you don't give away too much.

But, you used the word “collaborating”, so I want to riff on that  a bit..  “Collaborating”, a wise writer recently said, “is very dangerous for friendships”.  So, be careful here.   Collaboration is an act of tremendous fait and trust, and is often a decision taken too casually.  In this regard, it is a bit like a marriage, with the resulting screenplay the “child”.  Unless you're in total agreement about how the child will be raised, nurtured, etc., perhaps it's better not to create the child together in the first place.  If there's any chance you won't be able to agree on things later on, it's wise to plan accordingly.

You can certainly agree to share the writing credit with your friend, even though he's not actually a writer on the piece.   The trouble is, once you give such credit, you essentially manifest the intent that he, your co-author, is also the co-owner of the material.  Co-owners have the ability to interfere with a sale of the material, demanding too high a price, unreasonable approvals, etc.  So my advice is that writers should only collaborate with other writers, who understand the business, and agree on the plan(s) for the exploitation of the resulting property.

Whether you decide to share credit and ownership, or to instead credit  (and compensate) your friend in some other way, it's extremely important that the relationship be documented in a carefully written agreement, so there are no surprises later on.  This probably involves some cost, but a small investment now will certainly help avoid costly battles later on.

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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