Lisa Callif, named by Variety as one of The Best and The Brightest (2011), is an entertainment attorney at Donaldson + Callif whose primary focus is on representing independent filmmakers in all aspects of moviemaking, including development, production and distribution. As part of her practice, Lisa does a significant amount of clearance work for documentaries, having worked on acclaimed docs such as The Invisible War, Inside Job, How to Die In Oregon, Waiting for Superman, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Bigger, Stronger, Faster – The Side Effects of Being American and This Film Is Not Yet Rated.
I’m a writer/director. What are the best ways that I can protect my project before I start pitching to production companies?
It might sound counter-intuitive, but the best way to protect your project is to develop it as much as you can before pitching it. Don’t pitch an “idea.” Ideas aren’t copyrightable and as we have probably all experienced, if you have a great idea, there are probably one or three or 20 other people with that same idea. What is protectable and probably unique to you is the expression of that idea. If you are only at a treatment stage, make sure your treatment is fully developed; give the characters backgrounds and identities, develop locations and make sure the story is complete with a beginning, middle and an end. If you’re pitching a series, have a per-episode breakdown, with character arcs, detailed storylines and other creative expressions that are protectable. It’s much harder for someone to steal your work if it is fully developed. And why would they? You’ve already done a lot of the work. It’s much cheaper for them to hire you, or at least buy your project, rather than risk a lawsuit. Of course, you should register treatments, outlines and scripts with the Writer’s Guild of America and register completed scripts with the US Copyright Office. I highly recommend you do so; however, those registrations only protect you in the event of a dispute. To help ensure you don’t get to the dispute phase of things, do a lot of good work before you pitch. Oh, and make sure you trust the folks you are sending your materials to. Keep good records of who you send it to and everybody in any meeting you have about your project.
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