How do I copyright a script and will my script idea get stolen? How do I protect my movie idea? Do production companies steal ideas?

Hey, as a script writer for hire and UK script consultant I do get asked a lot about whether you need to copyright your script? A lot of rookie screenwriters starting out are even paranoid about having their ideas stolen!

It won’t happen. And the script is protected if you basically email it to yourself anyway – but Rookie writers have bigger worries than getting their scripts stolen – because….

If you’re based in the UK – NOBODY except the BBC Writersroom will EVEN read your script.  

Nobody will read your script

That’s right – nobody will accept unsolicited screenplays for very sound legal reasons.  So, right off the bat, nobody can steal your screenplay because you WON’T FIND ANYONE TO EVEN READ IT.

The BBC Writersroom is a different beast (while it still exists – and with the licence fee going it might not exist at all for very long) the BBC Writersroom has regular windows where anyone can send in a script (and it will be read).  But, THAT’S the ONLY place that does that in the UK…

There’s nowhere else.

And the BBC Writersroom isn’t looking to produce original scripts – its remit is to look for new writers for existing shows – like Eastenders and Casualty. So, the BBC won’t steal your script either.

Just about ALL UK Production companies will bounce back (or return by post) anything submitted to them that doesn’t come from a recognised literary agent.   Its standard practice now – and was put into place after multiple court cases surrounding the series ‘Life on Mars’.   

So, if NOBODY will read anything, nobody will steal your idea (feel better now?)

Okay, now, in the off chance you DO get a screenplay READ – if the producer likes the script, its a lot cheaper and SAFER for them to JUST BUY THE SCRIPT OFF OF YOU.  Rather than steal it.

Selling a script or screenplay

Now, this does happen – and writers who have outright sold a script are sometimes given a bum deal – the most famous recent (public) case concerns the film ‘Yesterday’ – Writer Jack Barth’s script was sold outright to Richard Curtis – the writer of ‘Love Actually’.  Barth sold the script and accepted the credit he was offered – ‘co-story by’.

Barth subsequently saw the finished film, and felt it was actually very close to his ‘script’ even though the film was credited as ‘Written and Directed by Richard Curtis’.

Barth was well paid for the script and idea. Curtis and production company Working Title – bought and owned Barth’s script – so it was theirs to do what they wanted with.

This isn’t the first time that Curtis and production company Working Title have had issues. After the success of Notting Hill, another film written by Curtis and produced by Working Title, the screenwriter Nick Villiers filed a £10m lawsuit claiming his ideas appeared in the film. Working Title dismissed the claims as “nonsense” according to The Guardian and said the legal action was typical of the industry. 

Barth and his claim on ‘Yesterday’ is more of a row about credits.  Barth was PAID for his screenplay and received the credit he agreed to at the contract stage.    As a screenwriter, credits are a funny issue; I’ve worked ON A LOT of produced feature films (and TV series) where I received NO CREDIT at all.  And there are lots and lots of writers who do the same thing.

UK script consultant and script doctor

Famously, this is Script Doctor work, and screenwriters like Robert Towne and John Milius have worked behind the scenes and without credit on films like ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Godfather’. I do similar work (although on less high profile productions so far…).

But the ‘Yesterday’ example is good one – it’s a film with a unique selling point, and a clever single idea at its core – nobody stole the idea – THEY PAID FOR IT – and PAID Barth off – which he accepted at the time.

As I said, the chances of your idea being stolen are close to zero.

What new screenwriters need to focus on – is how to get their scripts read and how to get an agent.   That’s a bigger worry.

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award-winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer.

His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller ‘Markham was released in 2020, his second feature film as director ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ hit the screen in 2021. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb. Matthew is also a  judge in the Page Turner Awards 2022.