Can I Copyright My Documentary Idea?


"Can I copyright my documentary idea?"

This is a common question that comes in to Desktop Documentaries and we wanted to set the record straight.

Short answer: You CAN'T copyright your idea.

Here's an example of such a question that came in recently:

Filmmaker Question: "Is there a way to copyright my documentary idea? I am looking to make a documentary on a specific person who is rather famous in their profession / field. I do not want to discuss this documentary idea with this person until I have my ideas copyrighted so they do not go to another filmmaker, etc. I have already put in too much time and effort in research."

Entertainment Attorney Gordon Firemark | Answer:

You’re right to be cautious about sharing your documentary idea.

You see, Copyright law actually doesn’t protect ideas… Only the specific expression of ideas.  So, until you’ve actually made your film,  copyright law won’t protect against someone making their own film based on the same idea.

What you CAN protect is your scripts, storyboard, outline, etc., and of course, if you’ve shot any footage, that’s protected.  

But to protect against other filmmakers stealing the idea, or against producers, investors, etc., going elsewhere to create a similar film, you need to rely on one thing:   

SECRECY (Trade Secrecy, to be exact).  

This doesn’t mean you can’t talk to anyone about your project, only that you get from them a promise (preferably in writing) that they won’t use anything you tell them for their own benefit, or tell anyone else without your consent.

In some industries, it’s quite common to use an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) before sharing confidential information.  In the film business, this is more the exception than the rule (which is why we haven’t included one in the legal forms pack).  So, do your best to get an email or other written promise that the recipient understands that the material is secret, is being presented with an eye toward making a business arrangement, and that they won’t use the information they learn from the conversation/meeting without your consent.

I’ve also got a video about this kind of thing:

How To Protect Your Ideas When Pitching In Hollywood

Legal Filmmaking Resources
From The Offices of Entertainment Attorney Gordon P. Firemark

Documentary Legal Forms & Contracts: Starter Pack
Documentary Legal Forms & Contracts: Post-Production Pack

About Gordon P. Firemark

Gordon Firemark

Mr. Firemark is an entertainment attorney based in California and also teaches Entertainment Law in Columbia College Hollywood's film program. He's the producer and host of Entertainment Law Update, a podcast for artists and professionals in the entertainment industries and the author of The Podcast, Blog and New Media Producer’s Legal Survival Guide

Firemark's Documentary Legal Tool Kit is offered exclusively here on Desktop Documentaries.

The Law Offices of Gordon P. Firemark cover intellectual property, cyberspace, new media and business/corporate matters for clients in the entertainment industry. Learn More:

This content is not intended to be used as a substitute for specific legal advice. No recipient of this content should act or refrain from acting on the basis of content without seeking appropriate legal advice or other professional counseling.

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