Treatments for Film and Television – Is Protection Possible?

In the volatile industries of film and television where networking, pitching, and disclosing ideas is the only avenue for material to develop, how is protection possible? What do you do when you are faced with the harsh dichotomy of the necessity of pitching treatments and acknowledging that the ideas could be misappropriated? In the free intellectual market in which we live, thoughts, concepts, and ideas are categorized as public domain. For this reason, it is crucial to understand the ways in which film and television treatments can be protected.

A U.S. Copyright protects “original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression” including literary works, novels, movies, songs, etc. However, a Copyright does not protect ideas or loose concepts. Given this broad definition, it is not hard to imagine why the U.S. Copyright Act does not cover a treatment for a feature film or television series. A treatment is not a finished product; it is simply a part of the development process that depicts the overarching concepts and themes of the work. As soon as the work is completed through the means of a script or screenplay, it should be registered with, and therefore protected by, the Office of U.S. Copyright.

Many artists argue that there should be some aspect of control, given that they invested time, creative processes, and hard work into development. How could anyone possibly protect an intangible concept that is in a stage almost prior to preproduction? Prior to completion of the project, there are some precautions that can be taken in order to keep the ideas out of public domain.

First and foremost, ideas should never be shared with the general public. As crucial as networking is to establish notoriety, speaking freely can cause a tremendous amount of harm.  General networking should not be a forum to disclose information; instead, treatment pitches are better disclosed in a formal meeting or business setting where additional measures to ensure confidentiality can be taken.

Usually, if you are not under the representation of a lawyer or agent, you will be required to sign a release upon pitching the treatment. The release generally gives the company, studio, or individual permission to use your idea without compensation or production credit.  In this situation, the only security is refusal to comply with the release. It is better to forego the opportunity to divulge the idea than to take the risk of being legally ousted from the project.

Contract law could provide a means to shield the treatment from public acquisition. Requesting a non-disclosure agreement (or confidentiality agreement) would ensure discretion between the parties involved by legally restricting their use of the information. This method of protection is the one reliable method of dispersing the information safely. After the contract is signed, and the treatment has been pitched, it is helpful to refer back to the agreement, in oral or written form, to remind the party of the confidentiality.

The negative aspect of the use of contract law is that the agreement is only binding upon the specific parties involved. Therefore, if the information is disclosed through an alternative source, the contract is not enforceable upon that party.

Finally, it may also be helpful to register your work with the Writer’s Guild of America. The WGA does not provide legal protection, however, it can provide evidence as to the originality of your work should a legal matter ensue. Through the WGA website, you can document your authorship by showing the creative process associated with the treatment.

Overall, anyone who is planning on developing a treatment for a television series or a feature film needs to keep in mind that their ideas are valuable and having a seasoned an experienced attorney’s guidance through the creative process will ensure the protection of the treatment.

Drafted by Rose Massary, JD Candidate 2012

Edited by: Michael Murphy, JD 2010 and Anthony Arther, Esq.

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