I have a dark secret and I owe one of my students an apology.
It began with two car accidents in consecutive years. Two cars totaled by drunk or careless drivers left me unable to work at the level to which I had become accustomed.
Then, the bills started to pile up.
It would be an understatement to say that I was hard up for money. I was desperate and when I saw an ad in a very reputable magazine for a screenplay, I answered the ad. I'd been tossing around this idea in my head for some time and I bit. I emailed a proposal. The agent followed up and asked for a treatment.
I sent him this synopsis, but just to be sure, I mailed myself a copy of the treatment and followed the advice that one of my teachers had given me: "Use Poor Man's Copyright."
It has been one of the biggest mistakes of my writing career.
Synopsis of The Blackheart Man
Opening Scene: Westmoreland, Jamaica.
The camera moves lowly over rows and rows of cane fields under a gorgeous Jamaican full moon. It’s as if the camera is bending the heads of the cane stalks, but there’s no sound—just the movement of the camera over the canes. A light rain begins to fall. The pace quickens over a hill to a Great House and toward a beach and circles back to cane fields.
Spling! The sound that machetes make when cutting cane.
The sound intensifies and the camera moves faster and after over the cane fields and suddenly we see a couple obviously in love racing towards a fence that has a sign “Keep Out! On Pane of Deth!” They ignore the sign and almost as if seeking shelter from the rain they race towards the dilapidated Great House.
We see the machete glinting in the moonlight. As they run, the woman begins to unwrap the skirt she’s been wearing. Obviously they are going to make love. We assume she’s going to lie down on the skirt. They enter the Great House cautiously, and then, race towards the center hall where they start to make out and then, to have sex.
The rain begins to fall harder and they are getting wet while they are making love, but they don’t seem to mind—the sex is too good. They are both giggling and laughing and we have a close-up of the man’s face. He is loving this.
In split second, the camera pans the woman’s’ face that goes from her own pleasure and giving pleasure to blood all over her face. The man has been decapitated. There is a thud on the floor. We never see the head. All we see is the look of horror on her face as the body falls on top of her and twitches. She screams. And screams. She picks up what she can and races out of the Great House.
The rain is falling harder. She is racing towards the beach. The sound of a heartbeat. We see the machete again.
A hand reaches out to touch her, but she fights it off a runs even faster away from the hand. Close-up of her as she apparently reaches towards her legs as if she had been cut down.
She falls and looks up at the camera, almost in recognition, but not quite. Scream…
Bunny Wailer’s song “Blackheart Man” begins.
Trevor Matthews, the protagonist
Janice Williams, the love interest
Uncle Wallace, the antagonist
Henry DaCosta, weed smoker and comic relief
Norman Higgins, sidekick and betrayer
Beeline, wise old Rasta man
Blackheart Man, a dreadlocked force of nature
The Mistress, comic relief
Trevor Matthews, who works as a manger at a hotel in Miami, has returned to Jamaica to take over and run Hog Heaven Hotel that has been placed in trust to his Uncle Wallace until he is twenty-nine years old. Trevor is educated, has a degree in hospitality management, and knows the hotel business in a bookish way. He has never been tested in Jamaica where he is a bit of a fish out of water. He has invited his friends Henry (weed smoker and comic relief) and Norman (secretly a coward) with him so that they can help him run the hotel. They have been friends with him in Miami and he figures they will be with him through whatever problems he comes up against in Jamaica.
On the night before Trevor returns from Miami, the murder has already occurred. Uncle Wallace (ex-cop) covers up the murder of the Jamaican couple with little or no fanfare. Uncle Wallace thinks he is going to buy out Paul's portion of the business.
When Trevor returns to Jamaica, he tells Uncle Wallace that he intends to take over Hog Heaven. This upsets all of Uncle Sam's plans. A murder of a tourist occurs and Uncle Wallace doesn't cover it up. In fact, he makes it a media event. He wants to discourage Trevor from buying the hotel. He wants the hotel for himself and his very expensive mistress.
Enter Janice Williams, Paul's' old girl friend. She works for the Tourist Board of Jamaica and is there to help Trevor so he won’t lose any more tourist business. Trevor still loves her and she still loves him. Trevor wants to prove that he is no longer a dilettante( “You can always run back to Miami and leave us the way you’ve always run away from everything” she says to him) and she wants to prove that she's no longer Daddy's little girl (“Did Daddy get you this job, too?” Trevor asks her the first time they meet: “He’s dead” she counters, “but I guess you were too busy in Miami to follow what’s been happening here in Jamaica.”
Paul also meets up with the Rasta man Beeline who gives him the background story of the Blackheart man who has been stirred by the boundary transgression of the Jamaican couple and the tourists and Uncle Wallace’s plan to extend the hotel to the land that was owned by the Blackheart man. A murder of a cook who worked at the hotel when Trevor’s father was alive has occurred before when Trevor’s’ father tired to expand the hotel. But once Trevor’s father restored the fence, nothing happened again.
Another murder attempt occurs and Trevor must act to solve the mystery. If not, another tourist will never step foot in the hotel. Who is the Blackheart man? Beeline gives more information. Uncle Wallace sees this as the perfect opportunity to kill Paul. He hires a hit man to do the job ala the Blackheart man. The Blackheart Man kills the assassin.
Trevor tries to rebuild the fence, but Beeline tells him it is futile now. The Blackheart man wants blood. The fence is still repaired. The next day they find it broken down again.
Fear takes over the hotel. Everyone is fleeing, checking out. Going to other hotels and islands.
Trevor is betrayed by his friend Norman who decides to go back to Miami, “I don’t want to die, man.” Uncle Wallace has bought off Norman. Henry will stay for the weed that Beeline supplies
Together Trevor, Janice, Beeline and Henry must join to kill the Blackheart man.
The Blackheart man kills Norman who is one the way to the airport.
The Blackheart man also kills Uncle Wallace. His expensive mistress gets away without her weave. Trevor is next. They all join forces and they kill the Blackheart man.
Trevor is reunited with Janice. The hotel opens under new management with Trevor and Janice about to get married.
I never heard from the agent again.
Then, a few years ago, my son and I were walking through Blockbuster and we saw this movie, XYZ, that was set on a Caribbean island, so we decided to rent it.
As we settled back in our seats, a sickening feeling overcame me. This was my movie. A few changes had been made, but it was my movie. I'd been ripped off.
I called all my friends and then we contacted a lawyer, who after reviewing the case told me that because we couldn't prove a “material connection” between he agent and the production company, we couldn't bring a law suit. Plus, he added with the costs of expert witnesses, etc, the costs made it impossible to win.
I asked him about "Poor Man's Copyright."
After he finished laughing, he basically informed me about what is now found in Wikipedia: "There is no provision in copyright law regarding any such type of protection. Poor man's copyright is therefore not a substitute for registration. According to section 408 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, registration of a work with the Copyright Office is not a prerequisite for copyright protection."
Dejected, I put away the information and thought I'd gotten over it until a few weekends ago when a popular cable station had a movie marathon with the movie.
I was steaming mad, but there was nothing that I could do about it.
And then I remembered the advice that I'd given one of my students about copyrighting his poems. I told him it was probably a bad idea to copyright every one of his poems because of the cost and the chance of his work being stolen was infinitesimal.
I'm wondering now if I gave him the right advice. I don't think I did. So, my student, if you are reading this, I'm sorry that I gave you bad advice and I hope you have not lost any work to unscrupulous agents or producers.
For in this Internet age when everything on the web can be scraped, copied, and mashed, unless you're willing to let go of the work, then you'd better apply for copyright: U.S. Copyright Office.
It may just save you from the rage that I am still feeling right now.