When I first started selling features, I noticed that there was the true story of Pope Joan, the only female Pope. She kept her gender a secret, until she gave birth, and suddenly everyone knew. Sounded like it’d make an interesting movie. I pitched it to Universal, they didn’t buy it.
Did they steal my idea? Not really. An idea can’t be stolen. Ideas can’t be copyrighted. But screenplays can. So I recommend that when you finish a first draft, copyright it with the US Copyright Office. Copyright subsequent drafts as well.
Also, think about this. The Pope Joan story was in the library, where lots of movie ideas come from. Someone else looked through the library, or found the book and thought it’d be a good film, just like me. Think about the news, newspapers, magazines, 60 Minutes, 20/20, all places film ideas come from.
Who has access? Everybody.
What can you do to protect your ideas? Again, nothing. But you can protect your script by copyrighting it. Don’t mail your script to yourself, or even register it with the Writer’s Guild. Copyrighting the script (not the idea) is the only legal way of protecting your work.
Will a copyright prevent a film like yours from being stolen? Not really. But the copyright can be used in a court of law, if you choose to sue a studio for stealing you script. Notice I’m talking about the theft of your script, not the idea.
Let’s say you sent a script out for agents and producers to read. One thing you’ll encounter is that if you don’t have an agent, you’ll have to sign a release form saying you won’t sue whoever you’ve sent it to.
These kinds of lawsuits are fairly common, so agents and producers won’t read a script without a signed release. Nobody wants to get sued in Hollywood. It’s time consuming and expensive.
Another issue in thinking about people stealing your screenplay in Hollywood; if it’s you, a writer just starting out with few assets versus a studio, you are going to be outgunned in court. Studios don’t like these lawsuits, and have dozens of attorneys on staff.
Not only that, but studio executives have huge egos. If you sue them for stealing your script, they can count on ten million dollars worth of legal representation to fend off your $100,000 lawsuit. And if you’re just starting out, you can’t afford the lawyers could beat the studios in court.
To win one of these lawsuits, you’d have to prove that (pretty much) your entire screenplay was stolen, and the offending party had access to your material. Don’t forget, your idea isn’t protected. You’re going to have to prove that a majority of your script, the scenes, the story structure, the tone, the character arcs and all the other elements of a screenplay were ripped off.
If Hollywood does steal a story idea, chances are they’re going to find different plot twists, change the gender of a character or two, and use all new dialogue in their rip-off. And consider all the rewrites a typical screenplay goes through; so it’ll keep changing until its shot.
The other thing to keep in mind is the typical mind-set of Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino has famously said, “I steal from every movie ever made. If my work has anything it’s that I’m taking this from that from that and mixing them together”
The Fast and the Furious is said to be basically, a copy of the movie Point Break. Surfing was the sport in Point Break, while car racing was used in Fast and Furious. A Fist Full of Dollars is said to be “borrowed” from Kurasawa’s Yojimbo. Another Kurasawa film, The Seventh Samurai was pretty much the blueprint to The Magnificent Seven. And Lucas talks about studying Kurasawa in creating Star Wars.
So there’s already a climate of writers and directors “borrowing” scenes and plots from other films, and Tarantino wears it like a badge of honor. It’s not considered cool, however to steal from an unproduced screenplay. It’s one thing to reference Kurasowa.
His reputation will not been sullied by the homage. But stealing a script from an unproduced writer could be robbing him of a career.
I’m pretty sure a lot of this “borrowing” is happening without the thieves’ knowledge. At studios, executives are hearing maybe five or six story ideas every day. They read coverage of hundreds of scripts.
Over a year or two, I’m sure these people don’t remember exact pitches. It wouldn’t surprise me if after hearing thousands of movie plots, one of those executives my actually think one of those idea’s is his own original idea.
If I had to guess, I’d probably say that more plots are “borrowed” accidentally than on purpose. Executives don’t set out to steal ideas, but they hear thousands and people talk. Sometimes ideas are in the zeitgeist, too .
Events like the Vietnam War, 9/11, the Iraq War and Desert Storm inspired many movies, some of them similar, including Rambo, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Three Kings, The Hurt Locker, and American Sniper.
How do you get around this? First, you want to be coming up with dozens, even hundreds of great movie ideas. Don’t be the writer who writes one script and spends the rest of his life complaining he was ripped-off.
Another thing; you can’t let the notion that ideas may be borrowed keep you from pitching your best ideas. As I suggested, have lots of great ideas. Be careful who you share your ideas with. But if you’re going to sell a movie, there’s a good chance you’ll be pitching it to a producer or studio executive.
If it helps, remember that this has been happening to every screenwriter who ever came to Hollywood. The really good ones stand out, they have lots of ideas, they persevere, they write dozens of scripts, and they’re the ones who get noticed, and break through.
It might even be an ego boost to think about a movie similar to yours in production. It means you’re on the right track, you’re thinking of ideas that work, as stories, and in the marketplace. Don’t get hung up on worrying about idea theft.
Remember, where this is concerned, you are on the exact same level playing field with every other screenwriter out there. It’s not just you, it happens to everybody. If you’re good, you’ll succeed regardless. And if you’re lucky, it’ll never happen to you.