Asked & Answered: WGA vs Copyright registration and protection of scripts

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Q: I’m sure this is the question that haunts all types of writers.  Being a screenplay writer and having my idea and even some exact dialog stolen from me in the past, and working so diligently to create my very best work, I fear the obvious.

My question is three-fold:  1)  Exactly what is protected by the Writers Guild of America’s registration; 2)  How can a writer fully protect their property/their creation/their script; and 3)How can a writer even find out if his/her work has been used without permission?

I keep accurate records of each and every production company I send to, but I found out by accidentally watching a certain television show that my script had been used about a year after the registration and copyright had run out.

Of course, I even fear my idea being used, as some company names are vague or not included at all, and others just a generic craigslist email address.  It’s easy to suggest not to send your loglines and synopses to these recipients, but the lack of an agent or other representative limits a writer’s options, and we are so anxious to get our work out there and discovered.  I don’t think I need to mention here the catch-22 regarding writers seeking agents before they are almost famous.

Finally, I’d like to also include here that when I discovered that my script and idea had been partially used, the entertainment attorney’s rates made it impossible for me, the unknown writer at the time, to pursue any legal action.

.A: I’ll try to answer each part of your question in turn.

1.  The Writer’s Guild of America’s registration doesn’t, in itself, provide any legal protection.  What it DOES do, is provide EVIDENCE.  Specifically, it provides a system to prove WHEN a script existed in a particular form.  Registration provides a dated record of the writer’s claim to authorship of a particular literary material. If necessary a WGA employee may produce the material as evidence if legal or official Guild action is initiated.  The Registry does not make comparisons of registration deposits, bestow any statutory protections, or give legal advice. Submitted material is not read by the Registry or other WGAW staff.   For more about WGA registration, visit http://www.wgaregistry.org

2.  The best protection for a writer’s work consists of three elements:  (a)  common sense, (b) copyright protection, and (c) a good paper trail.

Common sense means that you don’t share your script with just anyone.  Make sure you’re dealing with reputable people and companies, and don’t sign releases that give away your right to sue.  In fact, don’t sign anything  unless you’re sure you understand it completely.  If you don’t, talk to a lawyer.

Given the relative cost of WGA registration and Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, I usually recommend copyright registration.  Ultimately, you’ll have to register the copyright before suing an infringer, and , since doing so early (within 90 days of first ‘publication’ of the work), entitles the registrant to an award of statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, this is usually the best course of action.  Registration can now be done online at http://copyright.gov.  The cost is $35.  In most cases, you won’t need a lawyer to help with copyright registration, but contact one if you’re not sure how to complete the form, etc.    This is not to say WGA registration isn’t useful… it’s a valuable tool, and does provide the above-referenced testimony, etc.  Also, getting the registration certificate back is very quick, while copyright registration can take many months.  (registration is effective from the date received by the office, but the certificate takes a while to be issued).

A good paper trail means that you keep records of when, where and to whom you submit your material, notes of your conversations, copies of email correspondence, etc and of course your copyright and/or WGA registration paperwork.  If your material IS stolen, you’ll use this as evidence to prove your case.

3.  Learning of infringements of your work is the big challenge.  There’s no simple answer.  Keeping your eyes open for similar projects is the best solution.  The good news is that, although there ARE statutes of limitations which restrict the time frame in which you can sue an infringer, most aren’t triggered until the plaintiff KNEW or SHOULD HAVE KNOWN of the basis for the claim.

I should note that the question is a bit confused.   Copyright protection does not ‘run out’ or  expire until 70 years following the death of the author… so I presume we’re talking about WGA registration, which, I believe, remains valid for 10 years.  Another argument in favor of copyright registration.

The catch-22 is very real, I know, but idea theft is only possible because writers submit their material without knowing the details and reputations of the people to whom they submit, and/or  sign releases that give away important legal rights.  So again, don’t submit blindly or to fly-by-night operations.    Finding an agent is hard, but it’s necessary.  Just keep knocking on doors.

Finally, attorneys are highly-paid professionals, and our fees can be out-of-reach for some writers.  That said, if your case is strong, there are attorneys who will represent you for a so-called ‘contingent’ fee (usually 30% to 40$ of what’s recovered).  Also, as mentioned above, if you’ve done things right (e.g. registered your copyright early) , the court may award your attorney’s fees in addition to whatever damages the judge or jury finds appropriate.

This is intended as general information only and does not establish an attorney-client relationship. It is not a substitute for a private, independent consultation with an attorney selected to advise you after a full investigation of the facts and law relevant to your matter. We will not be responsible for readers’ detrimental reliance upon the information appearing in this feature.


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