Almost everything created privately and originally after April 1, 1989 is copyrighted and protected whether it has a notice or not. The default you should assume for other people's works is that they are copyrighted and may not be copied unless you know otherwise. There are some old works that lost protection without notice, but frankly you should not risk it unless you know for sure.
Copyright (or ©) is a form of intellectual property which gives the creator of an original work exclusive rights for a certain time period in relation to that work, including its publication, distribution and adaptation; after which time the work is said to enter the public domain. Copyright applies to any expressible form of an idea or information that is substantive and discrete. Some jurisdictions also recognize "moral rights" of the creator of a work, such as the right to be credited for the work.
The intent of copyright is to allow authors to have control of and profit from their works, thus encouraging them to create new works and to aid the flow of ideas and learning.
The Writers’ Copyright Association, UK (http://www.wcauk.com), whose sole purpose is to protect literary work is probably the most effective of the organizations out there. They do this all on-line and also offer legal contracts and give away loads of freebies like Final Draft and also The Guerilla Filmmakers’ Movie Blueprint.
No matter where you are in the world, you can register your work with:
• The Writer's Copyright Association, UK – http://www.wcauk.com
The way it works is like this. You visit the WCA website. You upload your work for a small fee (£25 for five years). You are then sent back a unique serial number that you can apply to the front of your work. The WCA records the date of creation and in case of litigation, can provide evidence to this effect.
Do be aware that the WCA does not verify the originality of your work. This is for a tribunal or court to decide (if it ever got that far). If you are planning on sending your work to the States it’s advisable that you take out WORLDWIDE registration with the WCA.
You may be interested in adapting a book. Unless the work is in the public domain (public domain is life of author plus 70 years) it is going to be owned by someone. In fact, the author’s estate or beneficiaries may still own every work you think might be in the public domain. If in doubt, check. With clever hunting, one or two phone calls will get you the answer you need.
Bad news for you. There is no copyright in a name, title, slogan or phrase. So you can’t sue Working Title under the assumption that you own copyright to the “Four Wedding & a Funeral” because you had the idea first. Sorry, pal.
But you may be able to register this as a trademark. The Academy Awards (Oscars) are trademarked, so is Coca-Cola, but most film titles are not. For more information or to register a trademark, visit the Patent office: http://www.patent.gov.uk
However, you’ll be interested to know that most US Studios register formal copyrights of their work with the Library of Congress. For more information, visit the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which was set up to protect and enforce copyright infringement and illegal piracy of film – http://www.mpaa.org
Also check out the Library of Congress, where formal copyrights can be registered: http://www.loc.gov/copyright/
Some Final Words
Ok, now you know how copyright all works. Pretty straightforward. But let’s sum up:
1. Write your script
2. Register it with the WCA (http://www.wcauk.com)
3. Stop worrying and get on with it.
Ever wonder why you haven’t made it yet as a writer? Here’s a key thing to think about: are you stalled in neutral? This is the most common cause. You sit around complaining about the state of the UK film industry instead of actually taking action. Guess what… IT’S NOT GOING TO COME TO YOU!!! YOU have to go to it. Change gears, get into drive. Don’t get stopped by “NO!” You have to work through “no”. Don’t make it mean anything.
Most importantly, you’ve written your one screenplay and sent it out, got loads of rejections and collected letterhead from all the major players (which you’ll no doubt throw back in their face one day). Ask yourself “are you doing everything you can do to get this out?” I mean everything? Who are you on the phone to today? Set yourself specific measurable tasks.
Finally… are you still writing? By the time you’ve read this article, your project is now old news. Want to be a writer? Write something else. And when you’re done with that… get straight on to the next project. Instead of being attached to your work… just be committed.