Friday, March 18, 2011

Protecting an Idea and Title for a Documentary

Dear Rich: I'm making a documentary soon and before I begin to publicize it and fundraise I would like to protect the title and idea from being used by others. How do I copyright this? Short Answer Dept. Forget about copyrighting your idea. Copyright doesn't protect ideas; it only protects the expression of the idea. For example, anyone could make a film of the recent tidal surge at Richardson Bay (and many have) but only after each film is created is it protected by copyright. It's true that some documentary ideas -- for example the idea of filming a 30-day diet on junkfood, or the idea of confronting the president of General Motors, or even the premise of living for a year without buying anything new, may be so strongly associated with specific individuals that copying the premise violates unfair competition laws. But these documentaries are rare examples and the protection would only kick in if the movie is completed and has become popular.
What about the title? An individual title for a movie cannot be protected under copyright law (short phrases don't get any respect) and it's difficult to protect under trademark law. You can register the title with the Motion Picture Association of America. But that's a limited form of protection -- an agreement among members (mostly big time studios and producers) who sign a contract that they'll avoid infringing registered titles.  

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