An original screenplay that is in writing already has common law copyright protection against infringement. You can obtain additional protection against infringement by registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. International copyright protection is also available in nations that have copyright relations with the United States.
Common Law Copyrights
A common law copyright is automatically created as soon as an original work of authorship is in a tangible medium. You may enforce it even if it is not registered by suing for infringement in a state court. The main disadvantage of suing on a common law copyright is that you must either prove the amount of damages you suffered, which can be difficult in a copyright infringement case, or prove that the infringement was intentional. If you are successful, the court will award you the amount of damages you proved and, if the infringement was intentional, the amount of the defendant's profits. For example, if the defendant created a screenplay with a storyline identical to yours, he might claim "innocent infringement" -- that he created it independently, unaware that you had created the story before he did. If you couldn't prove your damages and the court accepted his innocent infringement argument, the court would award you nothing even if he sold the screenplay to a Hollywood studio for millions of dollars. If the court did not accept his innocent infringement claim, it might award the screenplay's sales price to you.
You can register your copyright by visiting the website of the U.S. Copyright Office. You can fill out an online application, upload a digital copy of your screenplay and pay a filing fee. The electronic filing fee at the time of publication is $35 per work, or $50 per work if you apply by surface mail.
Benefits of Registration
You must register your screenplay with the U.S. Copyright Office before filing a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court, although it is permissible to register after the infringement occurs. However, if you register a copyright before there is an infringement or within three months after the first publication of a work, you can claim certain alternate damages plus attorney's fees. These alternate damages are called statutory damages and can amount up to $100,000 for willful infringements. Since registration of your work makes it publicly available, it is also more difficult for a defendant to claim innocent infringement. Further, federal registration also triggers international copyright protection.
The United States is a party to several international copyright treaties, as are most of the nations of the world. Most other nations extend copyrights for works that are created in the United States and registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Nevertheless, these nations apply their own copyright laws. Some of them require published copies to include a copyright notice -- the "c in a circle" copyright symbol, the name of the copyright holder and the year of first publication -- before they will extend copyright protection to the work.