Can I write a screenplay based on a book that I didn’t write?

Can I write a screenplay based on a book that I didn’t write?
No. You must have permission from the owner of the copyright in the original movie or book that you’re basing your screenplay on. Particularly in the entertainment industry, there may be monetary hurdles that you have to get around in order to get permission to write a screenplay based on a book or movie. 
If it’s a popular book, it will likely cost a lot of money to get a license to write the screenplay. And that author may have already granted an exclusive license to another, meaning you cannot legally write the screenplay. 
If the author or publisher does give you the opportunity to license or purchase the rights to make the screenplay, you might also have to enter into an option agreement that gives you rights over the book for only a certain amount of time. If the requirements of the option aren’t met—for example, if a movie isn’t set to be made using the screenplay after a certain period of time—the option could expire. So you would no longer have the rights to exploit the book or the screenplay you wrote based on it. 

Less often, you might be able to buy the rights to a book outright. This sometimes occurs with out-of-print books or books from publishers that are attempting to liquidate their assets. 
Generally, it’s advisable not to expend the time and energy writing a screenplay based on someone else’s work until you have permission to do it. 
However, you can write a screenplay based on someone else’s book if the book you want to adapt is in the public domain. Once a work enters the public domain, anyone can do anything that a copyright holder could do. This includes writing a screenplay based on the book or simply copying the entire book and selling it to make money.
For various reasons it’s difficult to create a simple explanation of what works are and are not in the public domain. Because copyright laws in recent history have been extending longer and longer, not many works have come into the public domain in recent years.

Finally, there are a variety of practical reasons why you shouldn’t write a screenplay based on a book that you don’t have permission to adapt. For one, the screenplay would be impossible to sell to any movie producer. And the movie based on the screenplay could not be sold to any distributor. Producers and distributors do not want to break the law by creating a film that they don’t have proper rights to. This would open them up to potential lawsuits, which could be extremely expensive. Finding a screenplay or movie with all of its rights in place is a much cheaper and more productive venture then buying a film that could create a lawsuit.
If you are screenwriter with questions about how to legally adapt another person’s book in your work or if you need guidance in obtaining a license to use that book, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.

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