I heart the WGA. The Writers Guild of America may have shut this town down a few years ago, but ultimately, I come down on the side of any organization that comes down on the side of artists. It’s that simple. The WGA exists to defend writers and get them fair contracts, and things were a whole lot stickier for screenwriters before the unions.
But no institution’s perfect. Everyone has their gimmick, and for the WGA, it’s their Script Registry Service. If you’re curious about my views on idea theft, read How to Tell An Amateur. However—once your script is WRITTEN and can be printed out and held in two hands, you DO want to take steps to protect it. For new writers in particular, it’s just too easy for someone else to print out a cover page with their own name on it and slap it on top of your script. And even if you catch up to them before the BIG SALE, they may have already submitted your scripts to contests, received awards, or used it to open doors which should rightfully be opened by YOU.
So what do you do? After finishing a script, you have two options: Registering it with the Writer’s Guild of America, or registering it with the Library of Congress.
Here’s what you get for registering with the WGA:
• A date of creation on file with the writer’s union
• The promise that a WGA employee will appear in court to give testimony on this date of creation
That’s it. And hey—a date of creation on file with a powerful union ain’t the worst thing in the world. However, it is important to ask: For what reason might you go to court and need this WGA employee to show up in the first place? To prove that you own your script? Yep—that’s right. And what’s another name for this legal proof of ownership?
In an emergency, registration with the WGA will strengthen your case for legally owning your own work—which is EXACTLY what a legal copyright already gives you. One type of registration provides a PATH to ownership, and the other IS ownership.
Here’s what you get for filing with the United States Copyright Office:
• Legal ownership of your script for the duration of your life, plus 70 years
• Reimbursement of attorney fees if your copyright is proved to be infringed
• Statutory damages if your copyright is proved to be infringed
• Immediate access to court in case of copyright infringement
Hmmm. Let’s see… One of these looks a whole helluva lot more beneficial to me. But if legal copyrights are so great, what’s the point of a WGA registry?
Simply put, the point is SPEED.
Hollywood is a fast-moving town, and Copyrights can take up to sixth months to process. WGA registration numbers can be turned around in minutes and printed directly off their website. If you’ve just finished a script and are chomping at the bit to send it out into the world, the WGA registration service is gonna seem a whole lot more enticing. On top of that, WGA registration has become an industry standard, of sorts. Production companies REQUIRE a WGA registration number on their submission waiver forms, and links to the WGA registry now come bundled with scriptwriting software such as Final Draft. Registering with the WGA is almost unavoidable, and has become an accepted quick-fix for writers with a deadline, or writers who can’t sit around waiting for the Library of Congress to register their new material.
Okay—this is the part where I say I AM NOT A LAWYER. If you’re trying to decide how to protect your intellectual property, why do you care what I think? Only a real entertainment attorney can clarify the finer points of the options available to you.
But here’s what I do: BOTH. When I’m registering my scripts, “both” is the only acceptable answer. You NEED a legal US Copyright if you are sending your scripts out into the world. It’s the only form of registration that guarantees your rights, and legally protects you from theft. But let’s face it—theft is unlikely. And with so many companies now requiring WGA registration, it an almost-unavoidable step that has an added benefit of being QUICK, and of providing some record of credit in the rare case that someone rips you off.
Registering your script with the WGA is fun—it takes five minutes, and they send you a cool certificate thingy that you can frame and hang over your desk, and point to as proof when friends challenge your validity as a screenwriter. However, I started this post by calling WGA registration a ‘racket’ – and here’s why: The WGA does a TERRIBLE job of elucidating the difference between registration with THEM, and registration with the Library of Congress. There’s a huge push in this town to get every writer to register their scripts with the writers union, and this is ultimately a disservice. If the shit REALLY hit the fan, registration with the WGA would provide you no real protection. And while it makes TONS OF MONEY for the WGA, WGA registration does not provide you an actual 'copyright' of your screenplay.
So think about that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—a successful screenwriter is not one who spends his career worried about intellectual theft. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a sucker.
Registration with the WGA is a useful and sometimes necessary step, but HELL—you just spent six months writing a script!
Doesn’t it make sense to take the NEXT STEP and ACTUALLY OWN IT?