I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV, but my life in TV format and concept development at top TV companies has given me a firsthand understanding of how the process of creating and pitching ideas for TV and film impacts the creator’s ability to protect their project. “How can I protect my idea for a movie or TV show?” and “Is my reality show idea or movie pitch protected by copyright?” are two critical questions I often hear from new screenwriters and producers.

The debate over whether or not ideas can be protected is one that often misleads the Writer/Creator in understanding their intellectual property rights, and a company’s position on the issue. So let’s dive in for an understanding of how copyright protection and the process of pitching ideas intersect within the TV and film industry.

When people tell you “ideas can’t be protected”, they’re telling a half truth. The truth is more specific.

Judges ruling in intellectual property infringement cases have confirmed “stock ideas alone have no protection.” Examples- “It’s a show about race car drivers” or “the show follows a worldwide scavenger hunt” or “the contestants are all blindfolded” are all ideas, but those basic ideas alone are just stock ideas. Protection of an intellectual property for TV or Film lives in the specific and unique expression that is created beyond a stock idea, and ultimately another party’s solicitation and exposure to that project prior to their own development of the same. In short, you better be original, and if they viewed the pitch, they better be able to prove they were already developing the same project prior to their exposure. This sets up the natural conflict and fear within the process of developing show ideas between those pitching and those buying. So let’s throw some cold water on the debate with some practical understanding.

Protection of an intellectual property lives in the specific and unique expression that is created beyond a stock idea.

A Copyright Is Not A Patent: I’ve seen countless new writers and creators profess belief that no other person is allowed to create the same project they’ve written, because they’ve registered it with a copyright service. They’ll even ask how they can check to see if anyone else has already created a specific concept before investing time and resources. First, it’s an impossibility to use ESP or other super-powers to scan the minds and desktops of all the writers in the world. Second, written creative works are not widgets that win a patent as a product and prevent others from going to market with the same type of widget they created. Similar or identical concepts are often created independent of one another, each taking a different path toward being produced. Knowing the industry is filled with creatives and companies who invest heavily in development, it becomes a race to the top- whose pitch can connect with the right producer or executive who can then take the ball down the field and score.

Having a very specific and unique expression of your pitch in a written form- developed beyond being a “stock idea” is what gives you copyright protection.

With written intellectual properties, protection comes into play when three things are established: 1) The producing company solicited the project from the person making the claim. (or scouted it in a secure market platform such as TVWritersVault.com. 2) The person making claim has a third party copyright archival of the intellectual property as a time-stamp and proof of creation (see CreatorsVault.com). 3) The project produced has a significant amount of elements that are identical to the project that was pitched. Keep in mind, proven exposure may establish liability if the conditions are correct. Having a very specific and unique expression of your story or format in a written form, developed beyond being a “stock idea” is the key element you copyright protection.

Why Production Companies Require Material Release Forms: Imagine owning a company with a team of creative executives, all developing projects that cover a very broad spectrum of subjects and themes within different genres. Then one day a person shows up and pitches a concept for a reality series very similar to several you’ve already developed. If that person then later sees that you produced what was your own project, and that being very similar to theirs, they’re going to believe you stole the idea from them. Production companies must protect their own, simply because of the position they hold and how they operate developing so many projects.

But let’s get more specific about why writers and creatives from outside the industry are almost always required to agree to a material release form, while producers and creatives working in the industry more often are not. It’s because those who are already in the industry are tied to companies whose lifeblood is maintaining positive business relationships within the industry among their peers, and have too much at stake. Those colleagues also understand that if you want to sell something, you have to expose it. They’ll let their agent or manager make a simple query about any question of conflict, and they’re then shown the origin and trail of development. More often when pitching in person, the executive will politely cut off the pitch and express, “Sorry, I have to stop you. We’ve been down the road on this type of format before and it’s a non-started because of x-y-z.” or “We actually have something too close to this in development already. Better we move on. What else have you got?”

The Triangle of Protection:

  1. Work to develop your pitch with highly unique content that to the best of your knowledge hasn’t already been done, and as a whole- projects a truly original story or concept. Keep in mind that this is the universal challenge within the industry. Even the top companies do not know with certainty that others are producing the same project. It’s a calculated crap shoot.
  2. Get protection by archiving your original draft with a third party registry prior to pitching it. Do this after you’ve fully developed your written pitch.
  3. Always be sure you have proof of exposure when you do pitch it to producers or any outside entity. Electronic record is what you want.

You can’t sell something if you aren’t willing to expose it: We’re in an industry unlike any other- with opportunity for anyone from any corner of the creative community to see their ideas come to life. You can’t pitch Ford Motor Company an idea for a new car. But you can pitch an idea for TV and Film and be part of the painful and exciting process of seeing it come to life. Trust that process, but do the work to protect your property.

If you have questions about this subject, jump into the conversation below and submit a question for discussion…

14 thoughts on “Understanding The Debate Over Idea Protection and Copyright in TV and Film

      1. scott manville says:

        Thank you for the kind words, Lindsey. Feel free to reach out any time you have questions about creating and pitching for TV and Film.


      2. Sue Ng'ang'a says:

        Thank you very much for sheding light on that. I’m still learning what I need to do first before pitching my idea and what to expect.. I feel that because of you, I’m well prepared mentally.


  1. Chan says:

    The Material Release Forms that you describe scare me. They stop me from taking action, and God knows that I have a lot of material to present. Your advice about having unique and original material with a timestamp gives me confidence to pitch my Game Show and Animation Series concepts. I believe that if I am guided by somebody like you, Scott, I would no longer fear having my concepts stolen. Thanks for the info!!!!


    1. scott manville says:

      Hello Chan-
      I can agree with your feelings on the material release forms when pitching directly (if they even accept submissions), and that’s why I wrote the article. It’s important to understand the position production companies are in when they have their own development teams and create their own projects for series that cover any subject under the sun. You would want to protect yourself as well. It really comes down to knowing if you really want to expose your project to sell it, and if there’s any foundation for common trust between the two parties. Know the venue you’re using, know the person you’re having facilitate, keep records….and really work to make your project original. Having a tangible component (property) as the core of your project always helps, and increases the odds of a sale. Stay safe and healthy!


  2. Vernita Griffith says:

    Great information. Thank you for taking time to do this. Even after crossing all of the “t’s” and dotting all of the “i’s”, I still want to just move forward and hope and pray that there are still some good people in the world.


    1. scott manville says:

      Thanks Vernita. People want to get deals done. I hope you find positive traction with your pitches.


  3. Jesus A Pacheco says:

    If you are inspired by someone else’s work, how do you differentiate being inspired by their work to it being just a copy?


    1. scott manville says:

      Hello Jesse-

      Thanks for reaching out with the question. It’s a common one, and an important one.

      First, I’d like to mention something that is critical when pitching, which can improve your odds of winning protection, and that is “proof of exposure”. So while the debate on whether an “idea” was lifted, or inspiration was lifted from the idea, you really want to first have a clear foundation on why you’re pitching the project to any third party you’re engaging. There’s no way to sell a project unless you expose it to potential buyers or partners… but it sounds like you’re worried about exposing your project because the underlying subject is rich and timely and hasn’t been hit on yet. Correct me, because I don’t like to presume, but that’s the general concern of many.

      To answer your question specifically… If you’re scouting projects, don’t copy their work. It’s easier to make a deal and partner up. If you’re pitching your work, be sure it’s highly original in execusion and not just a general idea. Anyone can write anything on the same subject or general idea… but if they’re lifting the specific and unique expression that the project displayed, then that’s a problem. Protection is a combination of both the “proof of exposure” and the matching of original details within the work. Arbitration panels debate and decide to what degree that is in any conflict/claim. Stock ideas cannot be protected, so if you’re pitching a project on a subject that you think will turn people on, and might possibly “inspire them” to do their own on the same subject…then be sure you’re first writing a fully developed pitch. Perhaps above that would be having any authority or property within that subject/story attached to the project. You want to stack the deck for value. It’s a race to the top. So do the leg work, build it up, and then be sure you have record of exposure to any third party you’re pitching it to. And never send it out unsolicited.

      In the end, if you want to sell your project, you have to expose it. There’s a bit of a brain trust going on when you have countless people inside the industry working to pinpoint and discover the hot topics and stories that are timely…so do your best to not just give away an idea, but give away a richly developed pitch with some proprietary element attached to it. And if you have questions on that, just reply and I’ll expand a bit more. It’s different for every project and genre. It’s hard to generalize about it, but I can give examples.

      I hope that addressed your question.



  4. Brian Kelsey says:

    Thanks so much Scott, this was so incredibly helpful! I do have one question though. I created a talk show that’s been running on my YouTube channel for about a year. I’m getting ready to pitch the concept to a larger platform and need to copyright the show. Do I need to copyright the body of work so far, or do I need to create a one page synopsis of the show, and get that copyrighted?


    1. scott manville says:

      Hi Brian-
      Glad you liked the article. I’d imagine the rights that you hold are the actual tapes and content.
      Assuming you are the host, then YOU are the show. So what you’d want to look for are any very unique and specific wrinkles in your format that make your approach to the talk format highly original. Write it out in a fixed format and register it so you establish date of creation.


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