Registering a work with the Copyright Office vs. the WGA

Unlike my previous posts which have had more personal content, this is just a pragmatic, public service post … of interest only to other writers, but if it helps one person, then I’ve done a mitzvah: I was relatively recently at a Dramatists Guild all day seminar on various business aspects of writing. I was rather surprised to hear a question – echoed by a friend of mine sitting next to me – asking which was better, registering a work with the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights or the Writers’ Guild.

I hadn’t realized that the WGA was now registering non-screenplays as well. I like the WGA, and even more, the Writers Guild Foundation. BUT Writers Guild registration is NOT a substitute for registering one’s work with the U.S. Registrar of Copyrights. The latter’s website is fairly easy to use now.

I know this not only from taking Law and the Arts taught by an attorney at Yale, but I’ve had day jobs working for and with lawyers, including intellectual property rights ones, for over 10 years. Finally, I’ve worked for 20th Century Fox Film Corp. in the legal and business affairs departments where dealing with screenwriters’ credits is a common issue – so I have direct and theoretical experience here.

Copyright exists the moment expression (not ideas, but the expression of that idea… likewise titles of a work are not copyrightable) is put into a fixed form, i.e. typically ink on paper. However, to enforce one’s copyright, i.e. bring suit for infringement, one has to have registered that work first with the Copyright Office.

Registering with the WGA is only necessary for screenplays, particularly in terms of determining film credit in WGA arbitrations, and otherwise should only be seen as a supplement to Copyright registration for both screenplays or anything else. It could be useful for instance as supporting what specifically is the date of creation in a more official way than mailing a script to oneself. But if you want to save money, yet do what’s absolutely necessary, just register with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Never submit a work until you’ve done that first.

Also, film companies typically require a clear chain of title, which includes U.S. Copyright Registration.

As far as re-registering after substantial changes have been made, that’s more of a gray zone decision. The
suggestion I’ve heard is to so again upon publication or that first production. There is a section on the form where you can specify that this is a previously registered work, and what changes have occurred since then.

By the way, the Dramatists Guild business affairs person was even more dismissive of a non-screenwriter doing anything other than registering with the Copyright Office, but I thought that was being too black and white myself.