questionmarkI work for a small European film company. On one project-in-development (based on historical events and characters), my boss verbally outlined the story of the entire screenplay while I took notes. I then went away and wrote a 35 page detailed outline based on her verbal instructions and incorporating my own much more detailed descriptions, scene settings, character nuances and several ideas.

The treatment was written mostly out of office hours and on my own personal computer without overtime pay. My boss didn’t write a word. The treatment was always intended to be sent to a more experienced screenplay writer, and I was always happy with this. I never had a special contract for this project (nor do I have any contract with this company), doing the work in good faith and expecting at the very least my name would remain on the treatment.

However, the treatment is about to be sent to the screenplay writer and I’ve noticed today that my ‘treatment written by’ has been taken off the treatment and my boss has left her name only with ‘story by’. When I asked about this I was told that it was not my film. I spent a huge amount of time on this and am quite upset, mostly by the blatant disregard for my work.

In this situation do I have copyright in the project? Should I insist on having my name included on the treatment and should I get any credit on the eventual film?

— Marley
London, UK

Not only am I not a lawyer, I’m not a British lawyer specializing in copyright. So my advice here isn’t as counsel, and shouldn’t be considered as part of any legal claim whatsoever.

That said, don’t pursue it. As frustrating as this is right now, you have the opportunity to learn from it. And so do the people reading your question.

Let me break down your statement into smaller chunks:

  1. You’re employed by a film company in some sort of production executive or assistant role.
  2. Your company is developing a project based on historical (and presumably public domain) material.
  3. Your boss instructed you to take notes as she pitched the entire plot of the movie based on that material.
  4. You wrote up this pitch as an outline, embellished with your own details. (It’s unclear whether you were instructed to embellish, or if you did this on your own.)
  5. The result, a 35-page document, was sent to a screenwriter.
  6. As sent to the screenwriter, that document did not have your name on it.

Let’s start from the top. You’re employed by a film company. Depending on British laws, anything you write on behalf of the company may be their property, just as a spreadsheet an accountant creates for a paper company is owned by the company. Again, I don’t know the specifics of how it works in the U.K., but in the U.S., this would certainly be a factor in any copyright claim. Writing the outline after hours on your own computer is unlikely to matter, since you were writing it on behalf of the company.

Second, the property is based on public domain sources. If this were based on a novel the producer had optioned, I doubt you would be writing in with this question, because you would recognize that the story belongs to someone else. It’s partly because the source material is “out in the wild” that you feel ownership to your creation.

In this case, the story belongs to the producer. You say she verbally outlined the story of the entire screenplay. So I ask you: if she had tape-recorded her pitch and asked you to transcribe it verbatim, would you still feel the pangs of authorship? Probably not. You’d see yourself as a typist.

Which raises the question, At what point in the embellishment did the outline become “yours”?

That’s a tough question for you to answer, and even tougher for a judge or jury.

I have some sympathy for your boss upon being handed a 35-page outline. 1 Here is the movie she pitched you, but with changes she couldn’t have anticipated. It’s her story, but suddenly your name is on the cover, and it’s not at all clear whether the extra work is meant to impress her or grab credit from her.

To put it bluntly, are you a brown-noser or a back-stabber? An over-achiever or an underminer?

If I were in her place, I would sit you down and have an uncomfortable conversation about your job description and the difference between what you do and what a paid screenwriter does. Because imagine the scenario in which you suddenly came back with a 120-page screenplay. She would rightly be furious. You would have taken her story without permission.

Which leads us to the last point. The outline you wrote was sent to a screenwriter — for whom I also feel sympathy, because an outline at that level of detail feels like a straightjacket. But assuming the movie gets made (a big assumption), how would you hope to defend what pieces of the final product are “yours”? You wrote the outline following the instructions of your producer, so every element would come down to you-said, she-said.

Again, I’m only responding to the facts as you presented them. I understand why your feelings are hurt, but I think pursuing them further is a mistake legally and professionally. Writing up notes, outlines and beat sheets is part of a creative exec’s job description. And so is not getting credit when credit is due.

When I was in film school, the president of production for Warner Bros. came in to talk about his job. He said that his buddies back home would see his movies and always ask, “Why isn’t your name on it?”

“I’m the shield,” he would reply, referring to the Warner Bros. logo.

And that’s where you’re at, Marley. Your credit is the production company billing on the movie. If that’s not enough, take it as incentive to write or produce your own movies that will carry your name.

  1. I’m using “outline” and “treatment” interchangeably. Treatments tend to be longer than outlines, but at this length, either term makes sense.