Plagiarism is rare — at least when we’re talking about the screenwriting industry.
The only reason it seems so prevalent is that the few occasions in which it does occur at the top level — cases like Shia LaBeouf’s fall from grace, for instance — and usually result in huge amounts of press and gigantic court settlements.
The harsh reality, however, is you’ll be fighting hard to get your script noticed by anyone in the industry, meaning that plagiarism is likely to be the least of your worries. That’s the bad news. On the bright side, the incentive for a production company to steal work that lands on their desk and erase the writer’s name is virtually zero. The nature of the screenwriting business somewhat automatically protects your work: there’s no shortage of people with a screenplay to sell; the risk of being caught out with plagiarism is high; and the financial penalties for plagiarism can be crippling.
That all said, just because being struck by lightning is a very rare event doesn’t mean it never happens — and it is marginally more likely to occur when entering into less-than-reputable screenwriting competitions. So be careful, and do your due diligence in research ahead of time.
We thought we’d compile some tips on how to deal with the situation should you ever be unlucky enough to find your screenwriting work has been plagiarized.
And first up, we’ll start with something that gets to the root of the issue:
Busting the “Poor Man’s Copyright” Myth
It’s an old and enduring token of wisdom: If you want to copyright your screenplay, mail a physical copy to yourself.
The idea here is that the US postal mark will prove ownership of the mail inside and provide a certifiable date which will defend against any accusations of plagiarism from works after this date.
Problem is, it’s flawed on every level.
We’ll put aside the fact that the system is less than failsafe — it’s not hard to manipulate an envelope — or that this defense has never been successfully employed in court to win a copyright case. The reason mailing yourself your script doesn’t copyright your work is that there’s absolutely no need to: anything you create is already copyrighted to you.
You don’t even need to put the © symbol anywhere on your script — and it’s often seen as a sign of an amateur to do so — because your copyright is already inherent. All adding the symbol does is remind anyone viewing your script that it’s the intellectual property of someone else. Anyone in the industry will take this as a given anyway, while an intentional plagiarist isn’t going to be deterred by a symbol.
But let’s assume you’ve become aware of someone who hasn’t just taken your idea (more on that later), but has copied whole chunks of your text. Now what?
Fighting Against Screenplay Plagiarism
Really, the best cure here is prevention.
Many networks or corporations won’t even look at screenplays or concepts by unknown writers without an agent. This is not because it’s some kind of closed cabal, but simply because they’re covering their own backs. In copyright cases, it nearly always comes down not to how similar the screenplays are, but whether or not it can be established that the defendant was aware of the other person’s work — or had contact with them along the way.
So, many networks and corporations won’t look at unsolicited ideas or manuscripts in the first place because this reduces the chances of their being successfully sued further down the line to virtually zero.
What this means for you in the writer’s seat is that not only will finding a good agent improve your marketability, but it’ll also offer you the same protection that the corporations enjoy. When dealing through an agent, everything gets recorded. Which is just the way it should be — and the way you want it.
But if you have identified a real case of suspected plagiarism and are writing solo, here’s a very helpful flowchart detailing the best approach at responding to the person whose work you find under their name (it’s intended for authors, but the advice is fairly universal).
Afraid of Accidental Plagiarism?
As a writer, you’ll no doubt recognize this very common scenario: you describe the brilliant screenplay you’re working on to a friend, only for her to reply with, “Hmmm, that sounds just like Movie X.”
Horrified, you look it up on IMDB or Wikipedia. You’ve never even seen the movie in question, but sure enough, you find it does indeed follow a pretty similar plot to your idea.
So, should you be worried about being sued for plagiarism?
Nope. Because you can’t actually be sued for plagiarism; that’s an ethical issue, not a legal one.
What you can be sued for is copyright violation, and it’s very difficult to commit this crime accidentally; this covers ripping off character names and entire passages of text, not expressing the same idea in a different way. Ideas, after all, are not copyrightable.
Simply having a similar plot (or even the same plot in most circumstances) does not constitute copyright violation. As we’ve covered previously, just as there are only seven notes with which to make songs, there are only so many plot archetypes and tropes with which to create a satisfying story. Every writer is inspired by works that have gone before their pen hit the page, and being inspired is far from violating copyrighted works. Think of the overt similarities between the TV show “House” and the “Sherlock Holmes” canon, for instance.
In fact, if you’re genuinely worried about mistakenly violating copyright, you’re precisely the type of person who’s least likely to do it.
So go forth and write! Strive for originality, but be aware that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.
And that’s not a bad thing.