Monday, September 20, 2010

Protecting SciFi/Fantasy Idea (and Characters)

Dear Rich: I have a science fiction/fantasy idea with a title, setting, characters, etc. What is the best method to protect my idea and all it's aspects: copyright, trademark or a combination of both? Any advice would be very helpful. There aren't many movies about the theft of a SciFi/Fantasy story so we're happy to recommend Gentlemen Broncos as part of our IP Film Festival (we don't know why it got such harshy harsh reviews; we liked it!). We won't give away the ending but the movie does provide one method of dealing with rip-offs (not to mention offering an excellent lesson on naming SciFi characters). One difference is that this movie deals with the hijacking of a completed novel while you're trying to protect an idea (and the related characters and settings). 
Want copyright? Time to start writing. Stephen King was working as a high school janitor when he heard a remark at work that gave him the idea for the opening sequence in Carrie. King's concept -- a girl who, upon reaching puberty, acquires the power of telekinesis -- was unprotectible when he thought it up. But once he developed it into the macabre novel, it became a powerfully protectible book and then, movie. In other words, there are no shortcuts for protecting story ideas. You need to write a detailed narrative with fleshed-out characters. Then, file a copyright registration for your unpublished (or published) work. If you come up short on narrative or characters, you'll be like the woman who sued the makers of E.T. The court found her musical play - Lokey from Maldemar - didn't infringe because it was constructed of caricatures (not fully developed characters) and a stock plot (an alien is stranded on earth and befriended by a child). 
What about trademarks? If you want to achieve trademark protection, you need to sell something with the character name or title.  Selling T-shirts or other merchandise will enable you to claim rights for that name on that merchandise. If you want to claim the trademark for the title of a book, you'll need to write and publish at least two books because trademark rights are not granted for single book titles. 
What if you're pitching the idea? If you're pitching the idea to a company, for example, a videogame or a movie company, you should, if possible, use an idea submission agreement. 
Summing up. Time to get behind the keyboard and make that idea come alive. Your characters will be grateful that you did.