One of the biggest misconceptions screenwriters have is regarding the establishment of a copyright in general. Many screenwriters believe that a copyright is solidly created at the moment of inception. However, while it is true that a copyright enures at the moment of creation, this is not actually particularly useful for protecting one’s work legally. This is why it is important to register a copyright with the Library of Congress. A “poor man’s copyright” (mailing a copy of your work to yourself) is not sufficient.
Copyright protects original, creative works. Mere ideas are not protected by copyright law, although expression of such ideas, as in the method of expression, may be protectable by copyright.
Another common misconception is in regard to originality and what constitutes originality in copyright law. Works must be original to warrant a copyright. Originality in this setting, however, does not mean “never having existed before,” but rather simply that the work is the product of the author themself.
Feist Publications Inc.,v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991) defined originality for copyrights as having “at least some minimal degree of creativity.” This landmark case established that the mere effort of compiling information into a digestible format could not be copyrighted.
Creative elements employed by the author alongside the compilation, however, may be copyrighted. As such the degree of creativity required for a work to be an original and therefore copyrightable work is minimal.
Many writers have a warped perception of the “fair use” exclusion to copyright law. It is true that “fair use” allows for the use of copyrighted material without the permission of the owner. It is also true that “fair use” is often interpreted ambiguously. The caveat to this is that “fair use” covers only works that seek to criticize, comment upon, or parody the original work. The covers work that is being used for educational purposes. It allows for critics to use elements of a copyrighted work to directly comment on in a critique and allows for shows like South Park to loosely copy anything imaginable for the purpose of parody. “Fair use” is most simply a defense to be used against alleged copyright infringement providing that the copyrighted work was used for a “transformative” purpose.
Many people view copyright as limiting of creative expression. In reality, however, the underlying principle behind the Copyright Act is to promote creativity and ingenuity. The Copyright Act allows for creators to use the work of others in a fair and consistent manner. This allows room for creative inspiration while protecting your own creative work from being blatantly copied and exploited. As covered in Article I of the
Constitution and earlier in this article, Congress was given the authority to pass legislation to promote the arts and sciences. Copyright law is the result of this authority and should be viewed as such.
This article contains general legal information for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.