How do I get the rights to adapt a book into a screenplay?

By Benjamin Craig, filmmaking.net

So you've read a book/play/article/something that you reckon will make an unreal movie. You're a script writer of sorts so you think, "yep. I'm gonna write this sucker." Where do you go from there?

The most important first step you should take is finding out whether the motion picture and associated rights are available for the work you wish to adapt. FIND THIS OUT BEFORE YOU START WRITING as you may just be wasting your time if you go ahead and write a killer screenplay, only to find that Spielberg's company just optioned the material for half a million dollars. There are thousands of other reasons that may prevent you from getting the rights to a work so you must always check first if you are serious about the project.

Finding out if the rights are available can either be a piece of cake or a monstrous task of seeming impossibility. The easiest way for published works is to get in contact with the author (assuming they're still alive). This can be done through a number of ways.

1) writing to the author's fan club address;
2) sending a letter to the author care of the publisher of the book;
3) finding out who the author's agent is (many reference books exist with this information) and asking them. Regardless of the method, it is best to try and deal with the author directly if at all possible as you are likely to get a better deal (agents after all take 15% of the income made off the work so they will push for as high a fee as possible to get maximum profit);
4) doing a copyright search.

Once you're in contact with the holder of the screen rights (this may not be the author but they should be able to put you onto the right parties), you must request to get an option on the rights. An option gives you the exclusive right to adapt and seek to produce a motion picture based on the previously published work, for a limited amount of time (usually 1 year). Basically, with an option you can get your script written, and look for production finance, or try and sell it, without having to worry about someone else taking it (or more importantly, you being sued for copyright violations).

At the time an option is granted, an agreement will be entered into between the various parties regarding the ultimate purchase of the screen and associated rights once certain conditions have been met (i.e. production finance has been secured etc). The option will usually cost around 10% of the total purchase price for the rights, and should include the first right to renewal for an additional term (for a further fee of course). Make sure it is made clear in the agreement whether the option is part of, or additional to, the purchase price. An option should really be like a deposit - you lose it if you pull out, but it becomes a down payment when you go ahead.

Options and rights on published works can be expensive. Try to consider this before you are blown out of the water by a $500,000 option price on John Grisham's next novel. The profile of the author and the work will be a large factor in determining how expensive the option/rights will be. If you are a small time operator or just starting out, don't try and adapt the world's best-selling novel unless you have a golden tongue (or wealthy relatives).

Once you have secured your option, you can then go ahead and write your killer script. If the option expires before you find a buyer/producer, and you don't renew, the screen rights you lose your right to adapt the material (but you still own the copyright on your work - you just can't sell it without the underlying rights).

Copyright Searches (USA)

If you are interested in the US rights to a particular publication, you can do a copyright search at the US Copyright Office (Tel. +1 202 707 9100). Order a Circular 22, which explains the process in more detail.

If the work in question were published after 1978, the copyright records should be available at the Library of Congress.

For more information on copyright, you can check out the Copyright FAQ, posted to misc.legal, or contact an entertainment/publishing lawyer.

Last updated 12-Jan-2005

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