Cyberspace & the Screenwriter

Captain James T. Kirk once said, "Space -- the final frontier." But...is it really? Space has been around for billions of years. Cyber-space? Not quite as long -- but just as indistinct.

The advent of cyberspace (web, email, usenet, IM) has opened up a Pandora's box for today's screenwriter. Outlets once available only to those in the loop are now accessible to scribes of all experiences - of all lands. It's a brave new world we enter -- so, let's not do it with our eyes shut. Time to check our fears and hopes at the door. The greatest possession one can have entering cyberspace is not talent or conviction -- but knowledge.

While the Internet may open the first door to the biz, there are many internal doors one must approach. Some are dead ends. Some lead to other dead ends. Some lead to...you've been there. It's called "surfing." Surfing the big W can unfold a tidal wave of websites; screenwriting sites included. A simple "screenwriting" query on AltaVista will produce 52,000 pages. A Google search on the same will produce nearly 189,000 links! Imagine spending just one minute visiting each one of those pages. You would be online for three months straight without a break. It's overwhelming indeed; especially to the novice. So what's a writer to do?

Just as there are 100s of books on screenwriting out there, there are 1000s of websites which may offer sound advice or just personal opinion, leaving the novice cyberwriter asking: "Who to trust?"   "Who not to trust?"   "Which sites are genuine?"   "Which sites are a sham?" Well, let us examine the old saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," and put it into motion.

Before tripping through cyberspace, posting newbie questions on bulletin boards & chat rooms or shelling out hard currency on what some sites offer (consultation, writing programs, books, videos, classes), one needs to get informed. It isn't always "what you know" or "who you know" but a combination of "what you know and who you share it with."

While the majority of those on-line are on the up-n-up, there are a few shady characters who lurk about the lanes of cyberspace -- just like shady characters in reality lurk about darkened alleyways. What does that mean for the cyberwriter? It means use caution. The biggest (or most overblown) paranoia amongst writers on-line is fear of screenplay theft. No matter how big the industry appears, those within it are observant of the happenings and events and the last thing a [legit] producer wants is to give himself a bad name amongst his peers. Most do not desire a big court brawl over stolen rights for a script and would prefer to purchase the script outright and save themselves a lot of headaches. So, how can you avoid a potential headache? Protect your interests.

Two ways of protecting your script can be found at these websites. They both have their benefits and are worth checking into if you haven't already: The Library of Congress and the Writers Guild of America.

Generally, any type of writing is protected by copyright law from the time of its creation as long as the writing is original, contains some creativity on the part of its author, and is fixed in a tangible form. This tangible form includes any document in an electronic state, whether it be fax or email, and will be afforded the same legal protection that a fixed form (hard copy) receives. While there are those who prefer to get the official copyright, as decreed by the LOC, many screenwriters (myself included) have their work registered with the WGA.

With offices in LA and NY, a script can be registered for 5 or 10 years at a clip and if the situation arises, they will go to bat for the writer and his/her script. With the ease of email, one can electronically register their script via the net. No postage. No copy charges. No trip to the local post office.

Now, you might be wondering what the difference is between the WGA(e) and the WGA(w)? Absolutely nothing - just location. I prefer the WGA(e) myself because their duration is ten years - compared to 5 years at the WGA(w). (And if someone can explain this disparity - I'd love to hear it.)

Notice in the earlier paragraph, I said "script?" Ever hear someone say, "Hey, I got an IDEA for a movie?" Sure! Almost everyone does. Here's a quick tale to ponder over.

Young writer meets with a producer who has just read his script. The producer goes, "Itís okay; not bad. What else you got?"

Writer responds, "I have this other idea. It's even better than the script you just read."

"Let me see it."

"Oh, canít show it yet. Don't want anyone to steal my idea but believe me, itís really good."

"Whatís it about?"

"It's about this boxer, an unknown, who gets the chance to fight the reigning champ. No one takes him seriously though and he goes on to give the champ the fight for his life."

"Wow. Great story. But don't worry about anyone else stealing it because...
I just did!"

Obviously, the idea is Rocky and this tale is fictional but where did the writer go wrong? It was an "idea." Ideas cannot be copyrighted. Ideas cannot be registered with the WGA. One of the biggest mistakes a writer can do on-line is to post all his or her great ideas to a forum where millions of lurking eyes may see it. (Now, here comes that ounce of prevention.) First, take that idea and draft it into a 2-3 page treatment. Once it becomes a written work, it is considered copyrighted and can be registered with the WGA. You are now protected. Now, you can pitch your idea to your hearts content.

To recap: The Internet offers the screenwriter of today the opportunity to intermingle with other writers and rub shoulders with the players in the industry. You will make friends, perhaps a valuable contact or two, and open up a seeming bottomless pit of data, advice, and products. The best thing you can take with you on your ride into the unknown is knowledge ... and a little common sense.

Be smart.

Be safe.

Live long and prosper.


© Terrence J. Brady

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