Alex and Nick discuss the contentious subject of copyrighting and idea theft in television. From the WGA to the Copyright Office, we take a look at the basics of protecting your work.

What does a copyright do? Should you register your TV spec script or pilot? Have there been cases of TV copyright infringements? Why is it important for TV writers to share their work?

The Paper Team consults their legal team…



1 – What is copyright or WGA West Registry vs. Copyright Office (1:01)
2 – Common questions about copyright (04:06)
3 – International copyright (9:55)
4 – When you should copyright and if copyright is enforced in TV (12:00)
5 – Why you should share your work instead of over-protecting it (19:02)
Takeaways (28:14)


WGA West Registry
U.S. Copyright Office
Copyright Act of 1976
Authors’ Rights (AKA “droit d’auteur”)
“Judge Rejects New Girl Idea Theft Case” – Variety
“Forest Park’s Breach of Contract Suit Over USA Network’s ‘Royal Pains’ Not Preempted by Copyright Act” – Seattle Copyright Watch
John August’s thoughts on idea theft
“Speccing and Sharing Star Trek: Terran” – TV Calling
Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s “Experimental Design Bureau”
John August’s draft library
“A darkly comedic Seinfeld spec script set days after 9/11” – AV Club

Special thanks to Jason J. Cohn for helping us edit this episode.

If you enjoyed this episode (and others), please consider leaving us an iTunes review at paperteam.co/itunes! :)

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If you have any questions, comments or feedback, you can e-mail us: [email protected]

We’ve taken a long glance at a lot of TV shows over the past seven years.
In fact, I’m usually pretty vocal about shows I love, and shows I…do not.

Before the age of Ultron TV marathons and binge-watching had arrived, I pointed out “why mythological shows are often idolized.” I’d probably broaden the scope to “serialized shows” now, but most of my points still stand:

In marathon-like screenings, the mind is somewhat submissive to the story told and the episode. The brain is passive, not active. You don’t have time to really think about the many twists and turns since you’re watching them unfold. You’re “eating” away the episodes, not “digesting” them. Everything will probably seem to blend into a unified storyline instead of finite stories broadcast every week or so with hiatus lasting months in-between seasons. Watching the first three seasons of Battlestar back-to-back won’t be the same thing as having been there since 2003.
For one thing, you didn’t theorize during Season One or Season Two. That might not seem all that important, but not being able to think for several months or years (or even only days in the case of a marathon) about who the twelve Cylons are won’t make you aware of how preposterous the introduction of the Final Five during the show’s third Season is. If you care a little bit about a show, you’ll surely think about it, start asking yourself questions. Let’s be honest, we all have way too much time on our hands and we love to theorize. Shows such as BSG or Lost work because you can theorize about them all day long… Until you can’t due to a faulty mythology.
Turns out, when watching episodes back-to-back you don’t have months to think about “what’s in the Hatch” or anything else that deserves theorizing. You’re not expecting special answers either, so you rarely end up disappointed either.

Since we’re on the topic, I did expand in another article on my love-hate relationship with Battlestar Galactica (as the show concluded six years ago).
And speaking of finished shows–
There was this post on why Dollhouse might be renewed, and a counter-post on why Dollhouse would be canceled. Turns out I was right on both ends. It would get a second season, thanks to some of the elements I brought up, and then subsequently would get canned, again mostly due to the aforementioned reasons. Looking back, it’s interesting to see that even at the time I was alluding to the concept of “brand” for writers. Namely, Joss Whedon’s geek appeal. (Part of which would get him the Avengers gig later on.)

As I said previously, I often voice (or write) my opinion on shows, even if it’s a negative one. One such example (and disappointment) was with the series premiere of FlashForward. For over a year, I had hyped the show. I loved the script, Iloved the cast, I was anxious for the final result. Unfortunately, the finished product left a lot to be desired:

Overall, what worked on the page didn’t work on screen.
I don’t blame the writing though, I blame the plain directing and editing.
A two-hour premiere would probably have given enough time to develop both the story and the characters. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. Better luck next time.

Although more optimistic, Lordy wrote at the time about two cult-adjacent series in Better Off Ted and Medium.

In science-fiction show news, I expanded on the unoriginality of Fringe. First I tackled its resemblance to The X-Files, before comparing its alt-world dichotomy to that of Sliders.
And we shan’t forget Heroes, now incidentally coming back from the dead. During its third season, I explained why Heroes should not set an end date.

Haters gonna hate.

Case in point: my 2009 article on the heydeys of Mad Men, or as I called it, “Mad Men: demystifying the overhyped“.

When a single series occupies 80% of all writing nominations despite obvious worthy contenders, when Times Square dedicates a whole evening to said series’ season premiere, when virtually everyone declares it the best series of the year, no matter how good the show actually is, that’s Mad Men.
And Mad Men is being overhyped.

Finally, let’s transition to more positive thinking, and three of our biggest talking points over the past seven years: Lost, Star Trek, and Breaking Bad. Trek was more writing (and Terran)-related, the other two were about their end.
To celebrate all three, we dedicated for each an entire week of brand new in-depth articles. Kind of like what we’re doing now with this site, except with original content.

The first one was the end of Lost, and our Lost Week. On top of articles covering Lindelof/Cuse quotes, Lost parodies and the future of the brand, my main focus was on a big aspect of the show: how Lost revolutionized TV storytelling. One example were its use of flashforwards:

Flashforwards in Lost gave weight to something that was rarely used, or at least not for their sake, but just to give hints of the future. It was the ABC show that truly revealed the potential of such a storytelling technique. The series had showed again that audiences could follow simultaneously two very different timelines. Not since La Jetée have we had such a complex array of timelines, combining both analepses and prolepses. One could argue the writers are trying to catch the lightning in the bottle once more with this season’s flashsideways technique. But all they’re actually creating is a fake sense of nostalgia.

On September 2013, I decided to spec and release a pilot for a new Star Trek show (Terran). We already covered that aspect earlier in the week, which is why I wanted to bring up another post I did on the subject: “Why Star Trek?” — The State of an Enduring Franchise. Beyond my own spec experiment, it was a way to express why we needed (and still need) a new Star Trek series. Here’s a taste:

One of the most interesting trait of the genre has always been that it could serve as an echo of reality. And the world desperately needs a reflection of itself.
You could make a pretty long list of contemporary issues that are begging to be explored (surveillance, social class, role of government, etc.). These are issues that would still be prevalent within the Trek-verse. In fact, the franchise has always been great at taking on societal and moral issues throughout its series (some more contemporary than others).

Even more importantly, Star Trek endures because it always has been forward-looking.
Star Trek stands for hope. Reaching for the sky and going where no one has gone before. It is sending a positive outlook about people. A better humanity, united, and equal. We need Star Trek on TV to inspire society, but also a new generation, people growing up to be explorers in their fields. This is about believing in a better future and striving to better ourselves.

We need a new Star Trek series, not for the fans of the franchise, but for everybody else. We need it for the bigger picture.

What a rallying cry!

Last but certainly not least, we had the end of Breaking Bad, and our Breaking Bad Week. I’m actually even happier with the amount of great, thoughtful articles we did on the show. (Maybe I’ll edit a book with these fancy posts!)
I covered the amazing experimental storytelling of Breaking Bad:

The show took the time to breathe and embrace the real world around it, and feed the humanity of its characters. Consequences and repercussions mattered because of the time spent at building these relationships, this status quo being broken apart. Like a steady hand on the wheel, it knew where it was heading towards. It was spending its time on meaningful moments. Bad was about real emotions, real greed, real jealousy, real fear. All of it stemming from smaller scales. The series was not trying to milk these moments, it was trying to establish context. Even in the craziness of season five, you still had family moments and humorous moments, like Skinny Pete and Badger’s Star Trek conversation.

We talked about the realism of Breaking Bad:

The show was hyper-serialized, and given its time-frame (one year within the story), it couldn’t afford being “ripped from headlines” topical. Nonetheless, it was still relevant. We’ve already seen how the series embraced its everyday roots by showing the “moments between the moments”. And the show proved to be even more receptive to its cartel storylines. Most notably, in the second season, the now-iconic image of a drug informant getting beheaded (and later put on a tortoise). “Extreme” moments that are, actually, completely believable (and similarly happened later in real life). Another great example of an atypical sequence is Los Cuates de Sinaloa’s narcocorrido track inspired by Heisenberg in 2×07 (“Negro Y Azul”). Narcocorridos are traditional Mexican songs with lyrics usually inspired by illegal criminal activities, often cartel-related. Although not a music genre well-known in the States, it nonetheless cements his story within the “real world”.

We braced ourselves for the failings of Breaking Bad:

As a fervent viewer of the show since day one, that season two buildup was one of the biggest cock-teases in recent TV history. It wasn’t as bad as Lost’s smoke monster, or Battlestar Galactica’s Cylon plan, but for a season-long mystery, it was definitely a miniature version.
It may not play out the same now, as you binge-watch the show, but when it came to a weekly viewing, the resolution of such an extended teasing was nothing short of a slap in the face.

A little too harsh? Only time will tell.

And then we talked about the legacy of Breaking Bad, most notably its serialized binge-viewing:

With the advent of Netflix and other great streaming services, Breaking Bad was able to capitalize on its serialization where other shows had previously failed. Word-of-mouth coupled with amazing cliffhangers (i.e. the need to watch the next episode) cemented its online boom.
It started out as a niche show that caught on with the popular success only coming the last couple of seasons. It is without a doubt thanks to the unprecedented access to Breaking Bad’s previous seasons that viewers were able to not only catch up on the show but tune in live for the final episodes. Bad was the first drama to fully benefit first-hand from the one-click-away access to its serialized episodes. Everybody caught on just in time for the final season. With only a couple million viewers watching the series “live” during most of its run, it isn’t a stretch to believe that more people actually watched the show on Netflix than on AMC.

Lots and lots of shows. Lots and lots of great analysis.

I can’t wait to see what I’ve been up to.

Television writing is, for all intents and purposes, the core subject of this website.
It would be foolish to recap seven years worth of TV writing-related content and advice in a post.
Let’s do it anyway.

We began our journey by tackling a very simple problem: how to land that first job in television. Yes, that “simple” comment was sarcasm.
It was shortly thereafter that I started mentioning a few of my favorite TV business books, and some great TV writing books.
Note to self: make another updated list. Other note to self: add previous note to self to to-do list.

June 2010 meant kick-off time in South Africa, which led me to write what the World Cup can teach you about TV writing. Hint: it does not involve corruption.

A big event of the past seven years was also my “spec experiment” in 2013 of writing and publicly publishing my spec pilot of Star Trek: Terran.
I explained my thought-process in a much-debated post entitled “Breaking Rules” — Speccing And Sharing Star Trek: Terran.

Television is a collaborative medium. We’re not writing novels, we’re making episodic scripts. And we should be learning from each other.
Sadly, besides produced scripts being traded in the shadows of Internet, there’s almost no TV writer, aspiring or pro, willing to openly share their work.
And I have to say: it’s weird.
I’m not talking about sharing projects currently in development/production or making the rounds. What I’m referring to is all the other stuff. The failed pitches, the finished projects, the canceled ventures.
This isn’t a question of getting/wanting validation from the outside. It’s obvious most writers already have a group, or an entourage whose opinion they care about. It’s about sharing the craft. The experience of TV writing.
That’s one of the reasons why I put Terran out there. Like any spec, it’s an ongoing work in progress, and I do welcome any feedback I get. Yet, I don’t expect it to be made (copyright issues notwithstanding). I put it out, in part, to share the process (good and bad).

I concluded with the following sentiments:

Writing can be a personal affair, but TV is communal. It’s teamwork. We’re all in this together.
I wish writers were more willing to openly share their work, especially when it comes to television.
It’s high time we started learning from each other’s craft. Why not become a team writer yourself?

Sounds like people need another bump to the bum!

Moving on to one of our most popular TV writing series–
Screenwriting Lessons From” is a great little series of articles where I reverse-engineer screenwriting lessons from finished series. We’ve tackled Coupling, Friends, Parks & Recreation, Farscape and Six Feet Under.
Last December, this tweet happened:

Yes, that’s a tweet from motherfrelling Farscape creator Rockne S. O’Bannon praising my “Screenwriting Lessons from Farscape” post! I’m still in shock that happened.

And speaking of professional TV people and popular series (greatest transition ever?), we’ve had since last year our “Profiles of Television” interview series, which mixes both TV writing and TV business advice. Posted as of today:
Kiyong Kim – TV Writing Fellow (Nickelodeon/NBC WOTV/CAAM)
Meghan Pleticha – TV Writer’s Assistant & Script Coordinator (Silicon Valley/Married)
Jill Weinberger – TV Writer/Story Editor (Chicago Fire)
Matt Thilenius – TV Literary Assistant (CAA)
(and someone else we had to remove for secret reasons)
Fun fact: this is just the beginning! I’ve already got four upcoming interviews in the can, ready to fire off. All that’s left to do is the transcript for each. Shouldn’t take more than hours and hours of work.

Of course, our big takeaway for most people have always been my annual spec script lists. I’ve published, so far, 13 spec lists since our creation (or, more accurately, since 2009).
It’s fair to say that over the past few years, our focus has slowly shifted to the TV writing fellowships and specs.
The first venture into the “how-to” spec guide was with the super-duper Canadian police procedural Flashpoint and our “Spec Flashpoint” series. I broke down over seven articles how I specced that show. Everything from research to, well, development.
Let’s not forget also the various how-to articles on spec scripts, mainly how fresh a show should be to spec it, and ten spec writing rules (and why you should care).
Over the past seven years we’ve had a ton of other articles on TV writing, including:
The difference between a “spec script” and “spec pilot”
How to land a writing gig on a TV show
Script Registration 101
How to get a TV agent
How late you can spec something
Animated vs. live-action specs
Is a pilot script needed when pitching?

And many more.

It has been a very fruitful journey so far, and I hope you continue living it with us.

Write on.

The Scribosphere Carnival is a weekly discussion from a variety of screenwriting blogs around a rotating theme.

And this is our first edition! Yay!

Instigated by Shawna over at Shouting in the Wind, this week’s topic is:

TIME CAPSULE — This topic is actually a 3-parter. First, recount your journey in screenwriting up to this point in time. Second, tell us where you are on your journey now. Finally, for the really fun, creative part — blog as if it is one year from today. What has the past year of your journey been like? What has changed? Be as realistic or not as you like — it’s your time capsule! One year from now, we will revisit our time capsules to see how we did with our predictions… Your post can be as long or as short as you like — the most important thing is to have fun with it!

My travels have been well-documented on this blog, so I’ll just give you a TL;DR version.
I created A TV Calling over five years ago to chronicle both my love for and odyssey towards television writing.
In 2010, I was finally able to move across the world, to Los Angeles (from a little town called Paris). That is, after winning the green card lottery (Serendipity? Fate? Who the hell knows). It is true that in the months following my arrival, I wasn’t able to blog as much as I used to. I went from pretty much a post a day to less than one a month. Fortunately, I’ve jumped back on the horse this year. I’ve also been working on my own writing (of course). As you saw last week, I’ve even decided to experiment with distributing some of that work online (through Star Trek: Terran).

In the few years I’ve been here, my professional experience, like anyone’s in Hollywood, has been full of ups and downs. One thing did not lead to another.
For me, “looking back” on such a short and recent period of time (in the grander scheme) seems hard to do without seeming pompous (rather than reflective), so I won’t expand. It has been frustrating at times, to say the least, but also rewarding, thanks in large part to the friends I’ve made along the way. We’re all our own worst critics, and measuring what I’ve accomplished to what I want(ed) to accomplish is more than a difficult task.

So, where to next?
Simply put: A writers’ assistant position on a show within the year; AKA the most coveted job in TV land.
(By the way, if you’re in a sharing mood and have potential leads, you should totally contact me! ;) ).
At the end of the day, this is an ongoing adventure. A journey. I could make another trite analogy–something about a race and marathon–but we all know the point already. When it comes to this industry, there’s only one quote that sums everything up: “Never give up, never surrender.”

A TV Calling blog entry from an alternate future: September 24, 2014

It has been ten years since Oceanic Flight 815 crashed and I’m still stuck on this goddamn island!
As I’m typing this, I’m wearing my Memoto camera. It’s awesome living in the future, where I have the technology to log my life. If only we had ways to transcribe, status-update, or even tweet about it in the days of yore. We were just a bunch of cavemen back then.

I miss Breaking Bad, but I’m glad I’ve found a worthy replacement in the fresh NBC series, Cop M.D.
A ground-breaking criminal/medical procedural featuring Christian Slater as a cop who goes undercover as a surgeon in a Boston hospital to root out a secret drug-trafficking operation. He also struggles with alcoholism, has a shaved head and scruffy beard, so you know he means business. Literally. They created his character to fit the network’s larger business plan of bringing the edgiest characters from five years ago. Classic NBC.
I’m glad they picked this over that Wizard of Oz-inspired drama (not that one, the other one. No, the other other one).
Now that I think about it, I don’t even know why I’m writing about this show since everyone has seen all the amazing ads that aired during the August Emmys.
In fact, I’m sure Cop M.D. will get the post-Super Bowl spot in February. They know people will chime in for this stuff.

Where was I? Oh, my life.
Good time were had by some.
Being in the room = best thing ever. Just being able to sit there and observe the process from the inside is, well, amazing. And, yes, everyone is still impressed with how fast I type things. What can I say, I’m like a writing machine. Tom Jones is on the verge of making a song about me.
I’ve had a good run with my spec, in that it didn’t make it into any of the fellowships (0.40% chance of that happening anyway).
I’ve begun work on an epic adventure feature involving space and time. But I’ve had this idea for a really cool pilot, so I may put both projects on hold and write a one-act play instead. Looks like I’ll be creatively busy for the foreseeable future.

Write on.

Scribosphere blogs also on the topic:

Shouting in the Wind | Red Right Hand | Jonathan Hardesty | Bamboo Killers

Hi there!

Alex Freedman

I'm Alex Freedman, the writer behind TV Calling.

I started this site in 2008 to chronicle my own journey in television writing.

687 posts and 9 years later, TV Calling has also become a comprehensive resource dedicated to the full TV writing industry — from spec to success.

Everything here is written by yours truly (unless otherwise credited), so feel free to blame me for any missed deadlines.

I hope you'll answer your television calling, and join me in this creative journey.

Write on.

P.S.: New around? You should start here.

What’s Alex Watching?

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