There is a lot of legal groundwork to cover before writing a script – anything you create which goes into the public eye will come under scrutiny from a number of organisations, and any breaches could land you with serious legal and financial troubles.
Of course, these kinds of issues may also prevent your work from ever being produced or may even inhibit screenings once a film has been made. Understanding the legal implications of screenwriting before proceeding is the best way to prevent any future issues.
We know this sounds pretty daunting, but the pieces of advice below should guide you on your way. Remember you can always get in touch with a solicitor after completing your script and before sending it off, so you know you won’t land in any trouble.
Remakes, Adaptations & True Stories
Whenever you are using another person’s ideas to mould your work – whether you are adapting a classic novel for the big screen, taking inspiration from a true story you saw on the news, or attempting to give an old film a modern update – you are treading in dangerous territory with regard to copyright and right to privacy law.
Even if your script is based loosely around another work, you must ensure you are not infringing intellectual property. Generally, copyright on material such as books and films will expire within 70 years of creation (plus the creator’s lifetime), but you must make sure to verify the status before putting pen to paper.
You might need to make changes to ensure that your script is sufficiently dissimilar from other works, or secure the rights with the copyright owner. This can, however, be a costly and extensive process.
With regards to writing true stories – even if it is your own – you must be careful to avoid violation of privacy rights and defamation. Even if you use pseudonyms or change other identifying characteristics of real people, you can still land in trouble. You may need to obtain releases from all relevant, living parties. Always speak to a lawyer before starting these works.
There is also the possibility that you will inadvertently mimic somebody else’s work – an idea may seem to occur to you spontaneously, but actually arose from a distant memory of watching a movie or reading a book. You could also simply conjure a story that had already occurred to someone else and been recorded. For this reason, you must still verify that a similar story is not in existence.
No matter the legal processes you have gone through, it’s always a good idea to add a disclaimer to the start of your film, such as that ‘all persons fictitious’ statement you see at the end of most films and television shows. Libel issues can end a screenwriter’s career.
Mentioning Organisations Or Existing Works
Usually, it is best to err on the side of caution when it comes to mentioning the names of organisations, whether they be soft drinks brands or universities. You could face legal action, especially if you frame them in a negative light. Even spoofing them by making slight changes to the name or otherwise can be classed as copyright infringement.
There is also a risk involved in mentioning that a character is reading a particular book, singing a song or watching a certain television show that exists in real life. You should always get in touch with the copyright owner – most likely the publisher, production company or record company – to find out whether you can obtain permission to discuss these works. You will need to know exactly how much and in what context the content will be used.
Disclaimer: We are going to follow our own advice and tell you that this article should be used as guidance and should not be treated as professional legal counsel.
This article was produced on behalf of Beecham Peacock, a solicitors that could help you with any legal questions about screenwriting.
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