questionmarkI am currently writing a screenplay and just curious when you think I should begin legal counsel. I think I need to copyright the movie name especially since I just created a Twitter account using it. Since I’m only about half way done it seems a little premature to begin the process. What do you think?

— Michelle
Madison, Wisconsin

This is an evergreen question, and the answer will never change: you can’t copyright titles.

Copyright is a bundle of protections granted to the creator of a work. It doesn’t cover the pure idea (“Save the Last Dance with dinosaurs”); it covers the expression of the idea (your original, 120-page screenplay Dinosalsa: The Jurassic Dance).

Your title alone simply isn’t enough to copyright. Even a work that is copyrighted (like a novel) has no special protection for its title. If you don’t believe me, do an Amazon search for “dead of night.”

What you’re talking about is trademark, the little TM (or R) that you might see after a title like Transformers. But that’s actually uncommon for movies. Transformers has it because it was originally a toy line. This week’s number one movie, The Roommate, has no trademark on its title. Ditto for True Grit, The King’s Speech and No Strings Attached.

When a movie is inching closer to production, the producers can register a title with the MPAA, giving it some exclusivity. As we started shooting The Nines, we had to clear the title against The Whole Nine Yards and a few others. Likewise, we had to give our blessing to the subsequent movies 9 and Nine.

MPAA title registration isn’t copyright or trademark. It’s a non-governmental system specific to the motion picture industry:

The Bureau is a voluntary central registration entity for titles of movies intended for U.S. theatrical distribution, and it is intended to prevent public confusion over films with similar titles.

In order to register titles, filmmakers must subscribe to the Bureau’s registry. There are currently almost 400 subscribers, including all of the major motion picture studios. Subscribers are bound by the Bureau’s rules, which prescribe procedures for registering titles and handling any related disputes.

You can’t copyright your title. You can’t trademark it (most likely). And at this early stage you can’t register it with the MPAA.

But the little steps you’re taking will be helpful down the road. If possible, you’ll want to have the URL and Twitter name for your movie. If your movie gets made, these will be a big help for marketing. Squatters will often snatch them up, so it’s worth trying to grab what you think you might use.