In addition to her work as a script coverage consultant in the film industry, Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 100 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine articles that appear regularly throughout the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Her upcoming book, WHERE THE PLOTS ARE, will soon be released. For more information, drop her an email.

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INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage

This Month: Is It Yours for the Taking?(Pt. 1) also: Announcing the HERITAGE SQUARE 2004 PLAYWRITING CONTEST
Let's say that it's three o'clock in the morning and you've just finished reading an absolutely breathtaking book. In your mind's eye, you already know who you'd cast in the lead roles, what kinds of witty things they'd say to one another, and where you'd want to film it if it were a movie.

If it were a movie...

A light bulb clicks on your head. Why not write that script yourself? After all, you love the plot, you've bonded with the characters, and you even recognize-from reading this book-what it takes to deliver a visually compelling piece of cinema. And hey, the author of the book -- some woman in Great Britain named J.K. Rowling -- might be so impressed that she'll write you a lovely thank you letter.

That's the fantasy. The reality is that she'll have her attorney send you a not-so-lovely letter suing you for infringement of copyright.

Even if she had no desire whatsoever to turn Harry Potter and his adventures into a box-office blockbuster, it's illegal for you to steal the concept and turn it into something else. Just as you wouldn't want your own works "borrowed" by another writer, the rules of registration and copyright exist to protect those whose brilliance has preceded you. While that's not to say they wouldn't be flattered or even intrigued by your enthusiasm to reframe their masterpiece, you need to observe the proper protocol in acquiring permission.

Specifically, that procedure is:

  1. Find out whether the book, play, or short story is in the public domain.
  2. If the work is not in the public domain, determine what rights are available for option.
  3. Consult an attorney and get your agreement in writing.

When William Shakespeare wrote HAMLET or Louisa Mae Alcott wrote LITTLE WOMEN, neither one was concerned about someone coming along and turning their plots into movies. In the first place, movies hadn't been invented yet. Nor, for that matter, was there a regulatory agency to assign and monitor subsidiary rights.

Creative works that have fallen into what is called "public domain" are a gold mine for screenwriters who want to try their hand at modifying someone else's material. Specifically, the term applies to those works which were either published prior to 1923 or those which were published between 1923 and 1963 and were not renewed. Today's copyright laws, by comparison, protect the work for the life of the author plus 70 years or until December 2047, whichever is greater. For collaborative works, this term is measured by whichever author lives longer.

Because public domain properties are no longer protected by copyright, they may be freely used by anyone who wants to do something with them. In addition to literary and performance art properties, public domain also applies to published works by the government and its agents and to autobiographical records and journals which have been granted or donated by their originator for the enlightenment of subsequent generations.

Within the context of publication is the issue of what rights have been granted insofar as derivations of the original material; i.e., translations, radio, TV, film, Braille, etc. These are laid out at the time of the property's purchase, generally as a boilerplate clause for authors and their editors who don't have any immediate plans to spin the material into something different. The specific language regarding subsidiary venues has evolved in keeping with technology, public demand and accessibility.

As recently as 10 years ago, for instance, no one had thought that electronic media would catch on as it did, resulting in the conundrum of whether authors whose novels had already been published traditionally could turn around and reissue them as "e-books" on the Internet, such extensions never having been addressed in their original contracts. Nor had anyone predicted the proliferation of high-tech video games and merchandising associated with fantasy and science fiction stories.

What this means for aspiring screenwriters is a stint at sleuthing to determine what permissions can be granted in order to take a non-public domain plot to its next level.

The availability of film rights for existing books is contingent on several factors. If, for instance, it was written by a well established author and published by a major house, it's a pretty sure bet that a movie studio has already pounced on an option, if for no other reason than to keep someone else from doing it.

Even if film rights haven't been delineated at the time of publication, you still need to work through professional channels of corresponding with the publishing house and/or author's representative to ensure that they don't already have something in the works. In the case of deceased authors, there may also be circumstances of their heirs having objections to a stranger tweaking with their loved one's masterpiece in any way, shape or form.

Smaller houses, foreign publishers, and self-published authors represent a better chance of negotiating permission for an adaptation because-in a nutshell-a film would (hopefully) promote and enhance the value of the original product. The downside, obviously, is that a prospective producer could argue, "If it hasn't set the house afire on its own merit, what makes you think people would go pay to see this at the movies?"

In the same vein, new plays which are produced in regional theaters or have their debuts on university stages are rich in opportunity for development. What many people don't realize is that these productions are often "shopped" a long time before officially finding a home with a publisher. The reason is threefold:

  1. The more times a script can be tested on an audience, the more chances to work all the bugs out before settling on a final version.
  2. Playwrights, such as myself, enjoy the freedom of being able to negotiate performance fees-and participate on the fringes as a consultant-for as long as possible.
  3. Major theatrical publishers such as Samuel French prefer to have proof of a show's popularity and longevity before making a commitment to aggressively market it.

In addition, the majority of aspiring playwrights tend not to have agents jumping into the mix, largely because agents view live theater as a riskier venture than books and, thus, one which offers a lot less return for their efforts. Playwrights also recognize, realistically, that a film version of their story will have a shorter shelf life than the original play and, accordingly, doesn't pose any long-term conflict of interest. Further, they're savvy enough to know that movie-goers outnumber theater aficionados and that a movie adaptation will enable them to share their plot with people who would otherwise not have seen it at all.

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News Alert!

Heritage Square 2004 Playwriting Contest

All the world’s a stage.

Here at Heritage Square, all of the Past is a stage as well. Playwrights and history buffs are invited to submit original one-act plays for performance and professional filming this December 2004. The costumed productions will take place in four of our historic landmark homes; specifically, the Perry House, the Hale House, the Valley Knudsen Garden Residence, and the Longfellow-Hastings Octagon House. The following rules and guidelines will enable you to put your best script forward and to participate in “Holiday Lamplight Tours,” a reflection of Southern California’s rich cultural and architectural legacy.

Submission Period: March 1-May 31, 2004.

Entry Fee: $5 per script (no limit on number of entries).

Script Length: 12-15 minutes each.

This Year’s Theme: “Faraway Friends”

Unlike a traditional theater setting, our audiences get to experience an hour’s worth of time-travel by walking from one house to the next and eavesdropping on four families as they prepare for the holiday season in, respectively, 1876, 1900, the 1930’s and the 1940’s. Our objective is to not only entertain our guests with a well written story but also to impart historical tidbits on these particular eras as they affected those who lived in them.

Contestants are not limited in the number of scripts they can submit for each house. Some, for instance, may want to try their hand at writing a script for each house and interweaving references to prior characters (ancestors) from the earlier settings. Others might focus their energy on writing a script for the time period that most appeals to them. Each entry will be judged on the basis of creativity, originality, warmth, and the inclusion of no less than 5 historical facts pertinent to that era.

For official rules, entry form, home descriptions and sample script, send an email to: