Mar 10, 2009

Protecting Your TV & Movie Ideas

Can you protect an "Idea"?

The specific expression of an idea is protected under copyright law, but not the general subject or vague idea. Perhaps the more important factor is exposure. Two people can create identical projects, and both race to the mountain top, but its the person who gets it to the buyer first who matters. Just because you have a copyright or creators vault archival for your project, doesn't mean that other people are prevented from creating the same identical concept on their own.

In the fast talking, loose lipped world of Hollywood, what measures can you take to protect your written creations? Are material release forms really a risk for writers submitting works? Or is the production company the one who is already at risk?

Post your comments, questions, and experiences. I'll be happy to share with you my thoughts.


  1. Scott, I had written a story for a movie a few years ago. My attorney had it copywrited and a year later, Dreamworks came out with the movie "BEES". My story is a perfect sequel as (BEES 2). Nine months ago my attorney sent a copy to Dreamworks with a confirmed delivery. We have not heard back yet. What should be our next step?
    Thanks, Rick Sharpless

  2. Hello Rick-
    Thanks for the question. I'll do my best to give you my view, without knowing all of the details.

    I believe you're refering to "Bee Movie" that came out in 2007. Its common knowledge that Jerry Sienfeld wrote that, and if you roll back from the time of movie release, through the year or two of post production, production, development, and writing, I don't think you'd feel as if they lifted your idea.

    But getting into the details of conflict as you perceive, you have to understand the process and how a project would come into play. By copyrighting the script, or idea, it doesn't restrict another person from creating and writing the same concept or story. Beyond that, even if your Attorney sent it, receiving confirmed delivering, its still an unsolicited project and the studio or production company has no obligation to you. I recommend never sending out raw concepts or scripts unsolicited. Always send a query letter or phone call first to get acceptance of a submission. You're then sending to a specific executive "per their request", and you would retain any proof of that submission, such as a fax confirmation, registered receipt, email, or electronic report at the TV Writers Vault or Screen Writers Vault. That's when you have a leg to stand on and the company needs to disclose their own trail of creation against your trail of exposure that holds them responsible.

    Its hard to see that a great idea you had, actually gets done by someone else, but that is the nature of the business and difficult for any creator to handle. Its all about getting it to the right person, and being able to prove that it was accepted as a submission, and having proof of that review.

    That's the best I can explain to this difficult and puzzling process we're all involved in. Established producers are struggling through their own mazes every day to get their projects there first, so feel good that you're thinking the right way, and can create viable projects.

    Best of luck!

  3. Hi Scott,
    Life has a way of creating it’s own format. I have created hundreds of projects over half a century as a parent, grandparent, teacher, creative imagineer and producer. My life’s collection of projects, people, ideas, stories and experience is creating an incredible development opportunity.

    Without divulging the concept, I will simply say I am creating a Habitat for Education where LIFE can be experienced, explored, recorded, produced, improved and enjoyed. It is a “G” rated concept.
    We are relocating in the Georgetown Divide area above Sacramento, California.

    My question for you is… how do I attract development partners to bring this project to it’s greatest potential? How do I promote a project without giving the whole package away?
    Thanks, Donna

  4. Hey Scott!

    So basically, I came up with an idea for a reality tv show, a pop culture competition show and possibly with a somewhat celeb involved. (Somewhat meaning if I can not involve the celeb or phrase, the show would not have to pay roaylties, and that would be cool too.) Anyways, I write a treatment, protect it as much as i can, send it to a production company (a friend of mine gets me in, she knows the owner)and am told it is awesome and they are totally interested in creating this project. Then the economy takes a dive, and noone will return my messages. But if what you are saying is true, by giving them the treatment, could they be coming up with the idea, or making the show on their own without me? And does that mean I have no leagal rights to go after them?

    I'm trying to be the first one to make the show (i got 16 episodes all planned out)but as a complete nobody, noone will return my calls/letters/ etc. And said celeb is well, not very helpful in "hooking me up" with some contacts. (too busy or too self centered, not sure which.)My only "in" was with this production company, and as times are tough all around, maybe they just don't have the ability to go forward.

    I do however have a private investor who may be willing to invest some money but wants to know the idea. I had him sign a NDA, but the treatment just got mailed out on Sat. Does this mean he can steal my idea as well?

    So how does someone not in the business protect themseleves from thier concept being stolen? Is there any way?

    Any ideas/suggestions here would be greatly appreciated!!



  5. Hi Donna-
    The best way to attract development partners is to network and build friendships and communications with others that are on the same path. I'm often hired to create, write, and develop projects for producers, writers, and idea people, but that's on a work-for-hire basis.

    Most of us in the industry end up gravitating to others that we get along with or share the same tastes in project types. That develops over years, so you need to do all you can to find others through web communities for writers.

    In regard to protection during the development process as you expose it to others. Be sure you have your original concept or format registered for "proof of creation" at places such as the Writers Guild of America, or The Creators Vault ( ). Then always keep a record of exposure when you share it with anyone. You may or may not be able to get others to sign non-disclosures, but you'll at least have proof of creation, and proof of exposure to that individual or company.

    Best of luck!

  6. I am in a serious bind - a large production company wants to showcase my life of being reunited with my birth family - after reading their 30 paged contract - I am overwhelmed - I am not being paid - except for them shipping me off to CA and back several times...though I like watching various reality shows such as top chef and the like - and have always enjoyed watching reunion shows - being on one is a totally different matter...they are choosing the story since they are assured it is a happy ending - and I know it would be -

    your advise? should I do it & go ahead - what about rights to my own life story or writing a book about it in the future...already trying to find lawyer to review contract?

  7. Hi Leah-
    That's great you have a company interested in documenting this period of your life, and specifically the reunion. I strongly recommend turning over the contract to an entertainment attorney. From what you describe, I'm guessing they're not offering the appropriate financial participation that you may be able to receive. If anywhere in the contract they are securing exclusive right to your "life story", then you are certainly entilted to more than travel expenses. I would also question getting into business with anyone who would first approach you on those terms.

    I hope it works out for you. If you need a skilled entertainment attorney to review the proposal.

  8. Hi Scott,

    How do I find the right person to help me fine tune an idea I have for a show. I have a meeting in NY coming up with the TFN, and though I am confident in the show idea I'm presenting, I think that to work with someone on the presentation and format would help a thousandfold. How do I find and choose that right person?


  9. Hi Margaux-
    TV Format Development is actually my area of expertise. You can view a bit of my work/rates/services at this url

    I'm happy to schedule any services asap since you have a meeting coming up soon. You can also email me at with any specific questions.

    Have a great week-

  10. AWKWARD! My sister is an active executive producer of reality tv shows. She has been hired by a well known production company in LA and is the EP of several current shows. She has her own company but has yet to sell a show on her own. About a year ago, she asked me (I'm not in the 'biz') to come up with ideas for a show for her own company. Although I've come up with over 100 ideas, she tells me that only 2 or 3 are worth pursuing. She gave one of these ideas to her 'boss' at the established company and apparently he is very interested and has begun developing the show and plans to pitch it to the networks. I spoke with my sister recently and she said, "we love the show idea - it's right up our alley. If it gets purchased, you'll probably get 'consultant' credit and maybe a little money." HUH? Advice? I don't want to create difficulties for my sister but also want to be treated fairly here.

  11. Hi Pipe Dreamer!
    Don't feel awkward. Your sister is in the business of developing and producing projects, so she fully expects YOUR expectations, which should be to have a basic shopping agreement or option deal in place. You shouldn't be shy in asking for it to be papered, since you're saving her from an even more awkward scenario: When they sell your project, yet they don't have a legal agreement and terms already settled with you! :)
    Its in their interest to have you squared away prior to shopping. It doesn't cost them anything.

    Tell her this: I'm happy to give you a free option since you're my sister, I just need to have the general terms of my participation outlined before I let it go to market.

  12. Hello there Scott.
    I have a television show that I have "Proof of Creation" on with, I am about to register for to showoff my work with a treatment for my show idea.
    Is it necessary for me to get a "Proof of Creation" on the treatment as well? I'm asking because if I am outlining the concepts that are involved with the show in the treatment, shouldn't these ideas in the outline be protected under the shows protection?

  13. Yes, but you want to have archived proof of creation for the entire work, including all content written. That cohesive work and the unique elements created and written within, together make up your intellectual property.