by Howard Suber, author of Creativity and Copyright: Legal Essentials for Screenwriters and Creative Artists

In more than 50 years of teaching aspiring filmmakers in UCLA’s Department of Film, Television and New Media, I saw how often not knowing or misunderstanding key issues of copyright, collaboration, and creative rights can result in years of conflict, grief, and loss for young professionals.

For years, my co-author John Geiger and I have watched young film and television makers who, convinced they had been ripped off, spend large amounts of time, energy and money seeking what they thought was justice from large entertainment companies. For years, we had current and former students come to us with an unending series of pleas for help because a collaboration went sour. And for years, we watched as young creators blithefully told us basic principles of copyright were something they’d worry about “later,” when, if needed, they’d hire a lawyer – only to discover that no lawyer would work with them because they had already made mistakes that would almost certainly doom any legal action.

This experience led me and my colleague John Geiger, an intellectual property lawyer and UCLA screenwriting alumnus, to write Creativity and Copyright: Legal Essentials for Screenwriters and Creative Artists.

Creativity and Copyright deals with the key creative, business, and legal aspects of film, television, and other media projects. We designed the book to be a useful resource that can easily be integrated into college curricula.

Our style is informal and sometimes humorous, but also thorough, with annotations to applicable case and statutory law for lawyers or those interested in going deeper. While it focuses on films, television, and media, it is also useful for playwrights, novelists and many other creative people.

In other words, it’s the perfect pocket guide for helping creative types understand the legal basics, and avoid those common mistakes that John and I saw thwart promising careers.

As one example, some of the most frequent conflicts we’ve seen have arisen from creative collaborations. The cliché about film and television is that they’re “a collaborative business.”  That’s absolutely true. So, beginning writers, directors, etc. usually think they are doing a good thing when they start collaborating with someone.

Collaborations are like a marriage – as long as the bonds continue, both sides draw strength from one another. But what happens when those bonds are broken? What if your collaborator doesn’t contribute as much to your project as you think they should? What if your collaborator starts claiming the project is “theirs” and/or misrepresents who did what?

When people came to us for help with their now-troublesome collaboration, John and I have routinely asked, “Did you put your collaboration agreement in writing?” They seldom do. Their most frequent response to our question runs something like, “But we were friends. I didn’t want to suggest that I didn’t trust them!”

But when a collaboration ends, it often means the friendship ends too. Often, it’s even worse than that – the former friends become enemies.

And then there are those who would come to us and lament that they have been ripped-off, sometimes by someone they had interacted with, but probably just as often by someone they never had any interaction with at all. Such people, however, often confuse copyrights with patents, believing that if they came up with an idea before somebody else, no one else can use it.

The most important point to understand about copyright is that you cannot copyright an idea; you can only copyright the expression of that idea. That is crystal clear in the law and to all copyright lawyers, but often confusing to civilians. How do you tell the difference between an “idea” and the “expression” of it?

Figuring that out is what nicely supplemented my professor’s income for decades and is a major source of income to lawyers who litigate copyright issues. And it’s this kind of critical knowledge that we’ve tried to outline simply in the book.

Among the many questions and situations the book addresses are:

  • What can I steal from others?*
  • What can others steal from me?**
  • How do you tell what you are free to use and what you must have permission to use?
  • What exactly is “fair use”?
  • I’ve been collaborating with a friend and it’s turned into a real problem. How do I get out of it and protect what I’ve contributed?
  • I want to do a film about real people; what permissions do I need?
  • Can producers or executives demand to share credit if they’ve made suggestions?
  • Do I have to sign a release form to get people to look at my work?
  • Does copyright protect me when I’m pitching?
  • How do I retain ownership of my material?
  • I’ve been ripped off – how do I get a lawyer? 

Our hope is that Creativity and Copyright clearly and concisely explains to creative people what they need to know about protecting themselves and their works –before problems arise.

*I use the term “steal” here because that’s what many people who take material from some source outside themselves fear they’re doing. But as the book spends considerable space explaining, people are often freer to use material from others than they are aware.

**I use the term “steal” here because that’s how many creative people feel when they discover someone else has created something similar to what they’ve created. We spend considerable space explaining why others are often free to use the same elements that they have used.