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Is there copyright in a screenplay synopsis?

Mary Asher was a freshman student. As a result of advanced classes in high school, she entered college at age 17, and had the goal of becoming a free lance writer. During the first week of classes, she attended a meeting of the film society to see a presentation made by James Shifty who is the Vice President of Production at DreamWorks Pictures, Hollywood, California.

After the meeting, Mary approached Mr. Shifty and stated that "she had a synopsis of a story that she would like him to look at." Mary also stated that she hoped that her story would fund her last three years of college. Mr. Shifty responded by giving her his business card and telephone number. When Mary broke out in a big smile and gave him a wink, Mr. Shifty grabbed her hand, gave her a kiss on her cheek and stated, "Anything that you send, I will accept." The next day, without any additional conversation with Mr. Shifty, Mary mailed an envelope to his office in California. The envelope contained a two page synopsis of a story for a motion picture that she had written over the summer. She believed her story was a good one because it involved two scientists studying global warming who got trapped by melting ice while conducting experiments in the arctic. Mary never received a reply from Mr. Shifty.

About a year later, Mary was shocked to see previews for a new movie, produced by DreamWorks Pictures that was identical to her story on the scientists in the arctic. Immediately she called you. She knows that you are a student in Entertainment Law and she requested that you write her a report on the rules of law that would determine her rights to compensation.

Solution Preview

Hi there,

Here's a brief overview of how you might like your assignment to look. I've used the IRAC method for outlining your case. The IRAC method starts by presenting the issues of the case; it then identifies the legal rules which should be followed; it follows up with "application" or "analysis" which shows how the rules apply to the case at hand; and then provides my conclusion. However, I've included a number of references to case law within the "application" section of the report. Depending on your professors expectations, he/she may prefer that these are brought up into the "rules" section. If you do this, you will be given more room in you "application" section to play with the facts of the case and discuss what other facts, if known, would be important to your analysis.

I hope this helps!




Is Mary's synopsis a protected work?

Did DreamWorks Pictures copy Mary's work?

Was the copying of Mary's work an infringement?


17 U.S.C. § 101
A "derivative work" is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a "derivative work".

17 U.S.C. §102
(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:

(1) literary works;
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.

(b) In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

17 U.S.C. §106
Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the ...

Solution Summary

This answer uses the IRAC method to discuss the application of copyright law to a case where a young girl submits a synopsis for a screenplay to a production company and later learns that the idea for her story has been used to create a new motion picture. It is 1611 words.