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What Screenwriters Need to Know About Copyright

DISCLAIMER: The information contained within this article should not be construed or taken as legal advice. It is for educational purposes only. Please see a Copyright Council lawyer.

Understanding how copyright works is key to building a successful career in any creative field or industry, especially in a postmodernist age where it is widely believed no new ideas exist.

The Premise Underpinning Copyright

Copyright law is based on the premise that two people can come up with the same idea, and produce completely separate works.

Put simply, ideas are not copyrightable in and of themselves. What is copyrightable is the expression of an idea, be it a literary work such as a screenplay or novel or subject matter such as a film — just so long as it is recorded in a material sense.

Applications of Copyright Law in Australia

That said, misconceptions abound due variations in the way copyright law is considered and applied in different parts of the world.

So to set the record straight for all the screenwriters out there, here is how copyright works in Australia:

• There is no formal procedure in place for registering copyright

• The creator of the copyright material is not necessarily the copyright owner

• Writers always retain moral rights, even if they are not the copyright owner

In addition to the above, creative works are automatically protected by copyright and as a result of signing the Berne Convention, Australian screenwriters enjoy copyright protection in most other countries.

Granting Copyright Rights to Other People

It is possible for screenwriters to assign or license their copyright rights to others.

Assigning Your Rights to Others

In this instance, you would relinquish ownership of your rights and grant them to someone else by selling or transferring your copyrights over.

Licensing Your Rights to Others

If you license your rights, you will still retain ownership but you would be permitting someone else to deal with the material work or subject matter in ways both you and that person agrees to.

You can limit what rights you grant to that person, such as by territory, by type of use or by period of time.

Additionally, you can impose certain conditions and specify that the work cannot be used unless your name appears alongside the work or until you receive an agreed payment.

When licensing your rights to others, it is best to put any agreement or related transaction into writing and have it reviewed by a Copyright Council lawyer — especially where exclusive licensing is concerned.

For more information on your rights or for legal assistance, contact the Australian Copyright Council and consider speaking to a lawyer.

Embracing Collaboration with Respect to Copyright

Hopefully this article will have alleviated some of your fears with showing your work to others as too many film projects have failed before they got the chance to start because of misinformation and some perceived issues in relation to copyright.

And if you’re that little bit more open to the idea of collaboration, contact us and let us know how we can help bring your next film project or commercial to the screen.

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