So you’ve beaten the odds and actually received a response from your query letter, cold call, etc. asking you to send in your material for consideration… but then the company gives you a submission release to sign before sending in your work. Depending on the document the company uses, a submission release might be a simple 1-2 page form, or a long, dense legal document that’s several pages long.
In layman’s terms, a submission release is an agreement where you consent to release a company from any liability arising from reading your material. In short, it’s a company’s way of protecting itself against claims of intellectual property theft. For companies that create intellectual property, it’s very important that they protect themselves from the appearance of any impropriety.
In cases where the writer (or the writer’s agent, manager, or attorney) is established and known to the company, a submission release is probably not necessary because everyone involved has a common understanding of how the business operates. But if a company doesn’t know you, or your material is coming to them from a source they don’t have an existing relationship with (a contest, a friend of a friend, etc.), you’ll probably be asked to sign a submission release so they limit their exposure and liability.
While all submission releases will vary in form and language, there are a few standard clauses that most of them include:
- Voluntary & No Implied Agreement. This establishes the fact that you’re voluntarily submitting your material, that it was not solicited by the company, and that there’s no implied agreement or future working relationship between you and the company just because they agreed to read your material.
- Ownership. Basically, an assertion that you wholly own the material being submitted and have the legal right to submit it. This helps the company avoid entanglements related to dispute over who owns the rights to the script.
- No Compensation. An acknowledgement that you will not be compensated for having your screenplay considered. This should have nothing to do with a future purchase of the material; it should simply be acknowledging that they are not paying you for the privilege of reading your material, including the cost of copies, delivery method, etc.
- Similar Projects. You agree not to hold the company liable or sue them if they happen to develop a similar project at some point. In most cases, you still have remedies at law if they actually plagiarize your work; this is merely a statement that you won’t take action against them for similar ideas not protected by copyright.
- Conflict Resolution. There may occasionally be language in the agreement about how to handle disputes about the use of material. For example, it might say that disputes will be resolved through binding arbitration rather than a lawsuit, or that the maximum amount of any payout will be WGA scale. These types of clauses are to limit the financial and public relations risks arising from a complaint, and to discourage opportunistic writers from seeing a submission as a chance to file an infringement claim.
As with all legally-binding agreements, you should read through the text very carefully and make sure you understand what you’re signing. If the submission release is coming from a reputable, established company, chances are their submission release will be relatively standard and innocuous. If the submission release is coming from an unproven company, though, you should read carefully (and consult a legal professional, if necessary) to make sure there isn’t anything sketchy in there.
It’s also important to note that submission releases, in the vast majority of cases, are non-negotiable. Companies spend a lot of time carefully articulating and structuring these agreements to cover their interests; they’re usually not inclined to spend the time or energy negotiating against their own position. The power dynamics of the situation are entirely with the company; you need them to read your work much more than they need to read your specific screenplay, so debating or arguing the merits of the submission release won’t get you very far.
The most professional thing you can do with a submission release is review it carefully, make sure you understand it fully, then either take it or leave it as is. If the terms are something you can live with, sign the release and send in your script. If the terms give you reason for concern, politely decline to sign it and don’t send them your script. Either option is valid, and it’s better to lose out on a read than to sign an onerous agreement that you’re not comfortable with.