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Securing Film Rights to Published Material
by Lenore Wright

Return to Screenwriting & Scriptwriting · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Have you ever read a book or story and thought -- This would make a terrific movie! Sure you have.

Should an aspiring writer attempt to secure the film rights to already published material? Well, maybe, sometimes.

Some screenwriters do break into the business by adapting a story from a published source. This strategy only works...

If the writer has been hired to adapt the story by the entity that controls the rights to it.


if the writer controls the underlying rights to the published material.

No legitimate producing entity will get involved in a project unless the rights are secured. Let me repeat that: No legitimate producing entity will get involved in a project unless the rights are secured.

Further, if someone else controls the film rights, any work you do on the project will be futile whether it is adapting the story, writing the screenplay or attempting to set up the project at a film company.

So, if you long to adapt previously published material, be certain you control the rights to the underlying material. How do writers secure the rights to published material?

Step 1: Find Out Who Controls the Film Rights

Research the contact information for the publisher of the book or magazine story that interests you. You will probably find their mailing address or contact information in the front of the book or magazine. Contact the publisher's Rights and Acquisitions Department. Often this initial query can be done by faxing the publishing house a short letter inquiring about the film rights.

You will receive one of these responses:

RESPONSE #1: The film rights are not available.

If this is the case, do not attempt to work with the material. You waste your time and set yourself up for heartache when you work on material that someone else controls -- unless of course the person in control of the rights has hired you to adapt the material.

RESPONSE #2 : The film rights are available.

If this is the case, proceed to Step 2 below.

RESPONSE #3 : The film rights are in the public domain.

Public Domain means that the author's copyright has expired on this material. Briefly, authors retain copyright through their lifetime plus a certain number of years depending on the law that was in effect when the material was published. If the work is in the Public Domain you are free to adapt it and sell your adaptation.

Examples of Public Domain authors: Shakespeare, Shaw, Louisa May Alcott, Sophocles, Homer, Hawthorne, Henry James, Edith Wharton and many others.

One caution: Public Domain works sometimes have multiple projects developed at the same time since no one controls the rights exclusively. Some of Jack London's work recently moved into Public Domain. Currently, there are three different versions of London's Call of the Wild in active development.

Step 2: Consider Negotiating an Option on the Film Rights

Notice I say consider. Just because rights are available doesn't mean you should or can acquire them. Before you mortgage your home and make an offer on the rights, do some research and plenty of creative thinking.

Here are some parameters to guide you:

Target Appropriately

Most well-known books or novels by best-selling authors would be too expensive for an aspiring writer to option. More reasonable properties to target might be out-of-print books, short stories or books from small publishing houses.

Research the Specific Market

Ask yourself these questions --

  • Is there a movie audience for this project?
  • Are similar projects currently in development?
  • What books and stories have sold recently to the movies and who bought them?

Contact a Professional to Help You Negotiate

Agents, managers and entertainment lawyers specialize in securing rights to creative material. If you are serious about securing the rights to a specific published piece, you should contact an experienced professional to help you.

It is smart to find out all you can on your own before you put an entertainment attorney on the clock. The Web offers many sources of free information on copyright and how to secure rights to creative material. Visit Writing-World.com's links to Rights, Copyright, and Other Legal Issues section for a host of helpful copyright resources.

When dealing with previously published material, passion for the story is not enough. Get the facts and proceed with caution.

Copyright © 2004 Lenore Wright. Reprinted with permission.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Lenore Wright has more than fifteen years' experience writing and selling screenplays in Los Angeles and New York.


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