by Eric Spiegelman
If you want an established screenwriter to hate you, ask them to read your screenplay.
Don’t ever use the words “Lynchian” and “will you read my screenplay” in the same breath.
— Duncan Birmingham (@DuncanBirm) July 31, 2014
I will agree to read your script if you will agree to be lied to by me about what a great job you did in, say, three or four weeks from now.
— Franklin Hardy (@franklinhardy) August 1, 2014
I’ll read your screenplay as soon as I can. Gotta get through this stack of Sinead O’Connor open letters first.
— Todd Barry (@toddbarry) October 3, 2013
I’d rather loan you money than read your screenplay.
— Tess Rafferty (@TessRafferty) July 22, 2012
To the outside world, this may smack of dickishness. The small cabal of writers who’ve made it through the gauntlet and into the promised land of being taken seriously should extend a gracious hand to those starving aspirants still making their way up the mountain, right?
No! Absolutely not.
The reason isn’t that your screenplay probably sucks, or that there’s nothing that an established screenwriter can really do for your career, or that giving notes is something they actually do professionally, for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you’re asking them to give you a free sample of incredibly practiced and refined knowledge, or that reading a screenplay takes a big chunk out of someone’s Saturday. On top of all of this, there’s a valid, legal reason that reading your screenplay is an extremely bad idea. It’s because of George Harrison. The Beatle.
The idea for “My Sweet Lord” came to George Harrison after he got bored at a press conference and slipped away to mess around on his guitar. It was 1969, in Copenhagen, and Harrison was on tour with Billy Preston. He fit the word “Hallelujah” to a basic chord progression, then played the same thing while singing “Hare Krishna,” then he grabbed Preston and the rest of his bandmates and brought them in to riff some more. The result was a number one hit, all around the world. But it was a hit that sounded a lot like this:
Bright Tunes Music Corp., which owned the copyright to “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons, sued George Harrison. Most legal proceedings are dry affairs, and the judge in this case took special delight in writing a decision about a rock star. It’s one of those opinions that’s fun to read out loud in an over-the-top accent. “Seeking the wellsprings of musical composition,” he wrote, “why a composer chooses the succession of notes and the harmonies he does, whether it be George Harrison or Richard Wagner,” he continued, “is a fascinating inquiry.” The judge decided that Harrison, “in seeking musical materials to clothe his thoughts,” had no idea he was plagiarizing The Chiffons.
However, this didn’t matter. Circumstantial evidence can prove someone guilty of copyright infringement if two elements are satisfied.* The first is that the allegedly infringing work has to be “substantially similar” to the original. The second is that the alleged infringer has to have had access to the original. “He’s So Fine” was a popular song in 1963. It was all over the radio that summer. George Harrison admitted that he’d heard it before. He had access. That was enough to make him guilty.
Seeking the wellsprings of screenplay composition is no less fascinating an inquiry. Screenwriters absorb stories and characters wholesale from the world around them. Many take actual, written notes on things that happen nearby. A couple years ago, a writer friend and I witnessed a pair of cigarette-smoking police officers lock their keys in their still-running squad car and try to jimmy it open with a coathanger. She immediately grabbed a notebook and pen from her purse, and said, “I need to not forget this.” Writers are often advised to “write what they know.” To be prolific, they need to know a lot.
Also — and this has happened to everyone — sometimes someone tells you a great story and then you tell it to scores of other people over time, forgetting the source along the way. Great embarrassment follows when you tell the story to the person who originally told it to you, and they’re like, “Ummmmmmm.” A lot of stuff gets mixed together in the cauldron of the mind and one of the first things to boil away is attribution.
So let’s say you ask an established screenwriter to read your screenplay and they do so, because they’re a genuine mensch, but also kind of an idiot. Turns out, there’s one novel plot point in an otherwise forgettable story, and this screenwriter mensch remembers that part and forgets the rest. Four years later, the screenwriter mensch gets inspired by a couple of bumbling cops and writes a movie about it, and innocently incorporates your novel plot point, with no conscious idea where it came from. You can sue him for copyright infringement and you will win.
Or, more accurately, you can sue the big corporate movie studio that sinks fifty million dollars into production of the bumbling cop movie and another hundred and fifty million dollars into marketing it. The studio will look through what they call the movie’s “chain of title” documents and they’ll find the contract where the screenwriter mensch sold the script to the studio and they’ll find the provision where the screenwriter mensch “represents and warrants” that the screenplay “is original with the Writer and not copied, in whole or in part, from any other work” and “does not violate the copyright of any third party.” To put it mildly, this will not endear the screenwriter mensch to the studio. You do not want to be the guy who cost Warner Brothers a hundred million dollars in a lawsuit.
The threat of a copyright infringement claim based on the unintentional plagiarism of an unpublished spec screenplay is so terrifying that many studios and production companies have a blanket policy against the submission of unsolicited screenplays. They do not want their executives to read them. This policy cuts off all claims of the “access” element of a copyright claim. If there’s no access, it’s far less likely that a court will find infringement.*
This is a very smart policy. It’s one that established screenwriters should adopt, preempting you from asking them to read your screenplay. Because when you ask someone to read your screenplay, you’re basically asking them, “Hey, mind if I create the risk that I might destroy your life in a couple of years?”
*However, if the allegedly infringing work is exactly the same as the original, proving access is a bit less important.
Eric Spiegelman is still technically a lawyer.