by John Geiger, author of Creativity and Copyright: Legal Essentials for Screenwriters and Creative Artists

This is a true story. 

Last week I received a call from a screenwriter who had just read Creativity and Copyright: “This book should’ve been handed out with my MFA diploma!” 

I was humbled by the kind endorsement.  A bit hyperbolic? 

“I’m serious.  You know my story, don’t you?” 

In transition from grad student to working professional, this writer participated in a “pitch fest,” one of those speed-dating-like industry events where hungry junior agents come to hear pitches from undiscovered writers en masse.  After this particular writer had completed a particularly strong pitch, one of the agents deadpanned, “I saw that movie last night.” 

That always kills the room. 

Taking the comment as a droll snipe at a lack of novelty, the writer smartly segued to a second, back-up project pitch.  And so it goes.  Later, when the pitch fest was breaking up, the agent approached the writer for a quiet sidebar.  “Hey, I mean it.  I saw that very film at a screening last night.  Same story, same character names.”  The writer was in shock.  Turns out that the writer’s spec was “leaked” through a reader in one of the industry’s prominent screenplay competitions. 

The writer would have been well informed by Creativity and Copyright, Chapter 5 – Copyright Infringement, where my co-author Howard Suber and I analyze in detail the objective and subjective tests for determining whether actionable infringement has actually occurred, as well as discuss the career implications and professional strategy of litigation.

If only they had used the book in their MFA program.

At the core of the entertainment industry, legal rules instruct and often shape creative endeavors and business strategies.  There’s no getting around the law.1  But no student wants to read a long book about the law, not even law students.  Creativity & Copyright is compact, like one of our primary inspirations, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.2   Similarly, we take aim at the most recurring trouble spots for practitioners. 

I’ve used Creativity & Copyright for three semesters now with my undergrad screenwriting students to sensitize them to business considerations and legal issues that occur during their development process, like: 

  • How can I base my script on a true story or a real person?
  • How do I get the rights to a novel or short story that I love?
  • Do I really need the rights to a novel or short story I love?
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages to collaboration?
  • Should I collaborate?
  • Should I sign a boilerplate Release to get my script read?
  • Is a boilerplate Release enforceable?
  • Is there a “safe” way to pitch?
  • What’s a “leave behind” and should I use them when I pitch?
  • What’s a “Hollywood yes?”

These are key issues that every screenwriter should know, and gain training on before launching their career.

Creativity and Copyright is also structured to reflect the development sequence and lifespan of a film project, for easy incorporation into your course syllabus:

  • The spark of an idea: Ch. 1 – Free for the Taking: What you Can Steal from Other, and What Others Can Steal from You
  • Using third-party source material: Ch. 2 – Clearance Required: What You Do Need Permission to Use
  • Writing, whether alone or together, as well as writer-producer collaborations: Ch. 3 – Collaboration
  • Pitching and selling: Ch. 4 – Selling to Others and Implied-in-Fact Contracts
  • Protecting intellectual property: Ch. 5 – Copyright Infringement; Ch. 6 – Your Legal Team; Ch. 7 – Confessions of an Expert Witness
  • Starting the next project, the why’s-and-how’s of getting back to the blank page: Epilogue: Creativity and Copyright

This book is not just for screenwriters.  For every aspiring screenwriter, there is an aspiring producer who wants to work with them.  Creativity and Copyright can help guide producing students on how best to develop intellectual property, including the collaborative process of working with writers. 

And for law students studying intellectual property or entertainment law, Creativity and Copyright is a backstage pass into the issues that confound their future clients most. 

“This book should’ve been handed out with my MFA diploma!” 

Now there’s an idea worth copying.

© 2020 by John L. Geiger

1. See, Better Call Saul (Sony Pictures Television, 2015 — Five seasons aired-to-date, with a sixth and final season scheduled to air in 2021).

2. The Elements of Style started as a forty-three-page booklet by Cornell University professor William Strunk, Jr. in 1918, for use in his classroom.  With the co-authorship of former student and writer E.B. White, the guidebook was expanded and published in 1959, and gradually became the darling of English departments everywhere.  It has sold over 10 million copies.  I’m sure I have at least three.