Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Legal Advice to Writers

For more years than I can remember, I've been answering questions on a site called Hollywood Lit Sales, which was founded by a client of mine. Sometimes I wish Howie would just put a FAQ under the Ask a Hollywood Pro section.

The question I got today about writing a sequel to a film was actually on point, and I probably haven't answered it before, but many times I think I may need to break my fingers to avoid a snotty answer, many of which can be summarized below:

1. That's not a legal question.
2. Do some research before you ask a question.
3. There are no shortcuts to success.
4. If you can't spell, use proper grammar, or write complete sentences, you have no business trying to be a screenwriter.
5. An idea cannot be protected by copyright.
6. There is no such thing as a "common law" copyright in the U.S. after 1977.
7. I've answered that before when you wrote in under a different name.
8. Why do you insult me by wasting my time?

I know, I volunteered for this.

I don't want to be mean or even discourage people from following their dreams, but the first rule of being a writer is to WRITE. And write some more. And even more. And know that rejection is a big part of the game.

I can't count the number of people who have written to me saying they've got all these great ideas but they want someone else to write the script. Most real writers have more ideas than they can possibly deal with in their own lifetimes. They aren't interested in yours unless you can provide them with a great big bag of money and guaranteed credit. The people who write to me think they should be the ones who get the most money and credit.

An answer I give a lot is "why did you start this work without a written agreement" to the people who are in the middle of an ugly break-up with a partner who may have been a co-writer or just the idea person. Then there's the similar question about what happens after the ugly break-up where one of the writers has gotten someone interested in actually buying the spec script and doesn't want to tell the purchaser about the other writer. Nothing will hurt that guy worse than trying to sell a lawsuit to a producer. It's as if they think a former co-writer won't notice. People in the mid-west follow box office. Writers follow sales.

A screen writer needs a word processor, Final Draft, a printer, a ream of paper, and the delusion that he or she is talented.* A writing team also needs a written agreement about who gets first billing, how the credit will read, how the money will be split, and what happens in case of divorce.

*Credit to Russell Myers for the two variations of a Broom-Hilda strip featuring Gaylord Buzzard he did with a gap of about 25 years between them. The first one says "typewriter." My husband, writer Len Wein, keeps them both hanging near his desk.