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Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – copyright registration issues for dramatic works

A “joint work” is “a work prepared by two or more authors with the intention that their contributions be merged into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole.” Scripts for stage and screen are often written by multiple authors. If the authors of the script intend to merge their contributions into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole, the script is a joint work, and the applicant should name all the joint authors in the application.

Musical plays containing script, lyrics, and music are frequently written by multiple authors. If the authors of the script, lyrics, and music intend to merge their contributions into inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole, the musical is a joint work, and the applicant should name all the joint authors in the application.

Different components of a dramatic work may be registered together as a joint work if the authors intended to merge their contributions into a single, unitary whole. By contrast, the elements should be registered separately if there was no intent to merge the elements when the authors created them. If there is some indication in the registration materials that the authors of the separate elements did not intend to merge the elements into a unitary whole (e.g., separate copyright notices), the registration specialist may communicate with the applicant to clarify the authors’ intent.

When all of the authors’ contributions (e.g., score, music, lyrics, script, book/libretto) have comparable weight and the application names all of the contributors as authors (e.g., composer, lyricist, playwright), the registration specialist will not communicate with the applicant to clarify the facts of authorship. If there is some indication in the registration materials that one or more authors did not contribute copyrightable authorship to the work as a whole (e.g., statements on the deposit or application), the specialist may communicate with the applicant to clarify the facts of authorship.

The Office frequently receives copyright applications to register brief synopses that summarize other works of authorship. When preparing an application to register such works, the applicant should assert a claim in the synopsis itself, but often applicants erroneously describe the work that is summarized in the synopsis (e.g., a television show).

If the synopsis contains sufficient copyrightable textual expression, but the applicant erroneously describes the author’s contribution as a “dramatic work” or “script,” the registration specialist will add an annotation to the record, such as: “Regarding authorship information: Deposit contains synopsis only.” If the synopsis contains sufficient textual expression, but the applicant erroneously describes the author’s contribution as an idea, concept, or the like, the specialist will communicate with the applicant.

Where the synopsis is very short and/or merely amounts to an idea (e.g., “I have an idea for a television show that will feature famous guest stars”), the specialist will refuse registration if the authorship is insufficient to support a claim in a dramatic work or literary work. Where the work contains sufficient text to be copyrightable, but it is clear that the applicant is seeking to protect the idea, the specialist may add an annotation to the record, such as: “Regarding authorship information: ideas not copyrightable.”

The Office may accept a redacted version of a screenplay for a motion picture (including screenplays for feature films, television programs, or other works of a similar nature), if the applicant requests special relief from the deposit requirements and confirms that the following conditions (draft) have been met:

  • The motion picture must be in production (e.g., filming has commenced).
  • Infringement must be anticipated.
  • The applicant must file an online application and upload the redacted screenplay in Portable Document Format (PDF) or other electronic format approved by the Office.
  • The applicant must specify the anticipated date of release for the motion picture.

The redacted copy of the work must reveal at least half the work, and the redaction must be done in a manner that will allow the Office to compare and authenticate the redacted copy with an unredacted copy of the same work. If the work is approved for registration, the registration specialist will add an annotation to the record, such as: “Regarding deposit: special relief granted under 37 C.F.R. 202.20(d).”

In all cases, the applicant must submit a complete unredacted copy of exactly the same screenplay within ten business days after the release of the motion picture. In addition, the applicant must pay the appropriate fee for locating and retrieving the redacted copy from the Office’s files.

The Office will compare the redacted and unredacted copies to confirm that they match each other. The Office has the authority to cancel the registration for the screenplay if (i) the complete unredacted copy of the screenplay is not received in a timely manner, (ii) the applicant fails to pay the fee for locating and retrieving the redacted copy, or (ii) the redacted and unredacted copies do not match.

If the applicant provides a date of publication in the application, but states that the date refers to a performance of the work, the registration specialist will communicate with the applicant, because a performance, in and of itself, does not constitute a publication. Publication of a motion picture or other audiovisual work publishes all of the components of that work. Once a dramatic work has been published as part of a motion picture or television show, the dramatic work may not be registered as an unpublished work.

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