Saturday, July 14, 2007

Using Protection

I’m no legal expert, but one question which I see regularly crop-up is that of protecting one’s work. The copyright thing. The WGA thing. Which is better etc?


When you write something - like a screenplay - it can be registered with a number of different organizations. No, you don’t have to do so. But presumably at some point you’ll want to send your work/s out to others and so then it will be outside your sphere of control... you may then need to protect yourself.


Two reasons. The most obvious reason is that you want to have some sort of recourse if your work is ever stolen. Plagiarized. Copied. Passed-off as an original work by someone else, when in fact it’s the fruit of all YOUR hard labor. You’ll need some sort of proof that YOU wrote that particular piece on or before a certain date.

The less obvious reason is to protect yourself from having OTHERS accuse YOU of having stolen THEIR work. See how that works? You write an amusing little story - unique and original in every way LOL - but you decide it isn’t worth registering because it’s not good enough (or whatever). Then a few years pass and you get the opportunity to have someone influential buy that original work... you’re ecstatic! You’ve made a sale! Then someone sues YOU because you’re now accused of stealing their original work. THEY have proof that their stuff is original because they took the time to register last year when they say they wrote it... the fact that yours is much older is immaterial now, lost as it is in a he-said-she-said sordid squabble which actually won’t last very long anyway once the other guys pull out their paperwork.

In the United States, the easiest method is to register your work with the Writers Guild of America. Depending on whether you live east or west of the Mississippi river, you would typically choose WGAe or WGAw. No, you don’t already have to be a member of these organizations (though it is cheaper to register your works with them if you do have an active membership).

The safest method is to register your work with the US Copyright Office. Obviously that process is a little more laborious, if only because it’s a behemoth organization that is not just dedicated to writing, but in fact to everything under the sun. (By now, the sun has likely been patented, but that’s via an entirely separate entity of the US Patent and Trademark Office LOL... and no, you can’t patent an idea, just an invention.)

If you’re a writer registering a screenplay, you’ll need to make sure you obtain the correct form (known as the PA) from the Copyright Office - the one you want (and not any other) is for registering works of the performing arts. If you’re a writer registering something else, then you’ll have to figure out which form to prepare (go here).

So what’s the difference between Copyright Office & WGA?

Well, aside from the cost of registration and the actual turnaround time in officially having attained registration, there IS a real fundamental difference between these two methods.

Registering copyright grants you legal protection... the U.S. courts recognize YOU as the author unless proven otherwise. Registration with one of the Guilds is only really useful for writing credits... in other words, the determination for who wrote what, when or how much of a written script. Need more convincing? >Great article here.

BTW: You can still be the subject of a lawsuit, however much you’ve registered your writing and however unique & original your story and characters might be. Remember the futuristic Sci-fi Terminator? Or the Matrix? Writers are especially vulnerable because every story is pretty much a variation on another previous story. Ideas cannot be copyrighted but even ignoring any outright dishonesty, genuine instances of parallel development must occur.

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