Registering your screenplay with the U.S. Copyright Office is the only way to protect your hard work

I. FACT: You can’t get the same levels of attorney fees/damages for theft of your screenplay unless it was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office
II. FACT: WGA offers ZERO protections to non-WGA writer IPs
III. WGA requires renewal fees—Copyright is your lifetime + 70 years

UPDATE: I’ve had to update this because of several comments and questions which, to be fair, I should’ve addressed when I scrawled this little essay. No, I have no problem with the WGA. I hope to someday be a member. My purpose here is to inform the many thousands of writers who aren’t WGA members that they’re putting their intellectual property in peril by NOT registering with the U.S. Copyright Office. And by continuing to advise each other to “just go with the WGA cuz it’s cheaper.”


I’ve been considering writing on this topic for a couple years but have avoided doing so because few things annoy my grumpy old man soul more than the legions of failed doers who’ve gone on to make bank as supposed experts at the very vocation at which they failed—writing advice gurus much?

But, my counseling is free, and I haven’t quit my day job.

Reason I even get into this issue is the sheer amount of misinformation from both laymen … and seemingly reputable resources who should know better.

The main takeaway here is: unrepped, unsold writers who do not qualify for membership in the Writers Guild East, West, North Pole, or otherwise, have no business throwing their money away on script registration fees with WGA.

The WGA offers you zero—lemme repeat, ZERO—protections regarding your intellectual property.

You might as well engage in the other completely useless activity of poorman’s copyright. Which also offers you absolutely NO LEGAL PROTECTIONS. But only costs you postage fees.

The only method of safeguarding your finished screenplay—aside from keeping a band of traveling assault ninjas versed in entertainment law on staff—is to register your completed scripts with the United States Copyright Office.

It’s easy and, if done in bulk, cheap.

I registered 10 of my scripts last year for about $80 total. That would’ve cost me thousands of dollars with the WGA and, again, given me nothing in return.

It’s not even a bragging right because, other than maybe the WGA accountants who happily use your funds to help their registered clients, no one cares that you’ve registered your script with the Writers Guild of America … of which you are not and probably will never be a member.

Even the WGA’s biggest selling point isn’t a selling point. They claim it acts as legal evidence your script exists but again it offers NO PROTECTION.

Feel like I need to keep hammering on the point since every day I see at least three people in Facebook comment sections advising their fellow scribblers to register with the WGA. I know they mean well but they’re hurting each other with this bad advice.

Many claim  you should register in both places but, again, that’s a waste of your money.

  • Does the WGA offer any kind of compensatory damages should a shady production company swipe your IP and make your movie?
    NOPE.
  • Does the WGA help you get attorney fees back if you’re forced to sue?
    Not a frickin’ chance!
  • Can the WGA get you damages for infringement of your copyrighted material?
    Not with all the five-leaf clovers in Fukushima.

Yes, technically, copyright exists from the moment you create a song, movie script, painting … but without official copy protection you will have a difficult time seeking damages for theft or infringements of your creations.

And it’s easy. Just go to www.copyright.gov. You’ll fill out some personal information, you’ll upload digital copies—they no longer accept physical materials but that just makes the whole process easier—of your scripts as PDF files. After paying your fee, you’ll hear back from them in a few months with a physical letter in the USPS letting you know whether your materials were OKd. And, so long as they aren’t someone else’s work copyrighted work product, you’ll be fine.

For the super legal take on why you shouldn’t waste your cash on Writers Guild of America script registration, read LAWYER LARRY ZERNER’S PIECE HERE.


Here are answers to some FAQs from
the United States Copyright Office

Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. An original work of authorship is a work that is independently created by a human author and possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.

A work is “fixed” when it is captured (either by or under the authority of an author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time.

Copyright protection in the United States exists automatically from the moment the original work of authorship is fixed.

Examples of copyrightable works include:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings, which are works that result from the fixation of a series
  • of musical, spoken, or other sounds
  • Architectural works

Copyright provides the owner of copyright with the exclusive right to:

  • Reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • Distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending
  • Perform the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • Display the work publicly if it is a literary, musical, dramatic, or choreographic work; a pantomime; or a pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. This right also applies to the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
  • Perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission if the work is a sound recording
  • Copyright also provides the owner of copyright the right to authorize others to exercise these exclusive rights, subject to certain statutory limitations.

Things not protected by copyright:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, or discoveries
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form (such as a choreographic work that has not been notated or recorded or an improvisational speech that has not been written down)
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents

“Works made for hire” are an important exception to the general rule for claiming copyright. When a work is made for hire, the author is not the individual who actually created the work. Instead, the party that hired the individual is considered the author and the copyright owner of the work. Whether a work is made for hire is determined by the facts that exist at the time the work is created. There are two situations in which a work may be made for hire:
1. When the work is created by an employee as part of the employee’s regular duties
2. When an individual and the hiring party enter into an express written agreement that the work is to be considered a “work made for hire” and the work is specially ordered or commissioned for use as:

  • A compilation
  • A contribution to a collective work
  • A part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • A translation
  • A supplementary work
  • An instructional text
  • A test
  • Answer material for a test
  • An atlas

NOTE: Mere ownership of a copy or phonorecord that embodies a work does not give the owner of that copy or phonorecord the ownership of the copyright in the work.

How Long Does Copyright Last?
In general, for works created on or after January 1, 1978, the term of copyright is the life of the author plus seventy years after the author’s death. If the work is a joint work with multiple authors, the term lasts for seventy years after the last surviving author’s death. For works made for hire and anonymous or pseudonymous works, the duration of copyright is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

How Can I Protect My Work?
Copyright exists automatically in an original work of authorship once it is fixed in a tangible medium, but a copyright owner can take steps to enhance the protections of copyright, the most important of which is registering the work. Although registering a work is not mandatory, for U.S. works, registration (or refusal) is necessary to enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation.

Applying a copyright notice to a work has not been required since March 1, 1989, but may still provide practical and legal benefits. Notice typically consists of the copyright symbol or the word “Copyright,” the name of the copyright owner, and the year of first publication. Placing a copyright notice on a work is not a substitute for registration.

Benefits of Registration

  • Registration establishes a claim to copyright with the Copyright Office.
  • An application for copyright registration can be filed by the author or owner of an exclusive right in a work, the owner of all exclusive rights, or an agent on behalf of an author or owner.
  • An application contains three essential elements: a completed application form, a nonrefundable filing fee, and a nonreturnable deposit—that is, a copy or copies of the work being registered and “deposited” with the Copyright Office.
  • A certificate of registration creates a public record of key facts relating to the authorship and ownership of the claimed work, including the title of the work, the author of the work, the name and address of the claimant or copyright owner, the year of creation, and information about whether the work is published, has been previously registered, or includes preexisting material.

Submit an application online through www.copyright.gov or on a paper application.

In addition to establishing a public record of a copyright claim, registration offers several other statutory advantages:

  •  Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration (or refusal) is necessary for U.S. works.
  • Registration establishes prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and facts stated in the certificate when registration is made before or within five years of publication.
  • When registration is made prior to infringement or within three months after publication of a work, a copyright owner is eligible for statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.
  • Registration permits a copyright owner to establish a record with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for protection against the importation of infringing copies.

Registration can be made at any time within the life of the copyright.

If you register before publication, you do not have to re-register when the work is published, although you can register the published edition, if desired.

Effective Date of Registration

When the Copyright Office registers a work it assigns an effective date of registration to the certificate of registration.

The effective date of registration is the day that the Office receives in proper form all required elements—an acceptable application, an acceptable deposit, and a nonrefundable filing fee.

The date is not set until all the required elements are in the Office’s possession. If the
Office receives incomplete materials, an unacceptable deposit, or an insufficient fee, the effective
date of registration will be set on the date that the Office receives all the required materials in acceptable form.

The date is not based on how long it takes the Office to examine the materials or
mail the certificate of registration.

You do not have to receive your certificate of registration before you publish or produce your work. Nor do you need permission from the Copyright Office to place a copyright notice on your work.

But the Copyright Office must approve or refuse your application before you can file a lawsuit for copyright infringement, except in cases involving a non-U.S. work.

You may seek statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in an infringement action provided that the infringement began after the effective date of registration.

The law, however, provides a grace period of three months after publication during which full remedies can be recovered for any infringement begun during the three
months after publication if registration is made before this period ends.

Copyright Notice

A copyright notice is a statement placed on copies or phonorecords of a work to inform the public that a copyright owner is claiming ownership of the work. A copyright notice consists of three elements:

  • The copyright symbol © or (p) for phonorecords, the word “Copyright,” or the abbreviation “Copr.”
  • The year of first publication of the work (or of creation if the work is unpublished); and
  • The name of the copyright owner, an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized, or a generally known alternative designation.

A notice should be affixed to copies or phonorecords of a work in a way that gives reasonable notice of the claim of copyright.

Using a copyright notice is optional for unpublished works, non-U.S. works, and works published on or after March 1, 1989. However, notice conveys the following benefits:

  • It puts potential users on notice that copyright is claimed in the work.
  • For published works, notice may prevent a defendant from attempting to limit liability for damages or injunctive relief based on an “innocent infringement” defense.
  • It identifies the copyright owner at the time of first publication for parties seeking permission to use the work.
  • It identifies the year of first publication, which can be used to determine the term of copyright for anonymous or pseudonymous works or works made for hire.
  • It may prevent the work from becoming an “orphan” by identifying the copyright owner or specifying the term of copyright. Orphan works are original works of authorship for which prospective users cannot identify or locate copyright owners to request permission.

What Is Publication and Why Is It Important?

Under copyright law, publication is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending.

Offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of people for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display also constitutes publication.

Whether a work is published has important implications, including:

  • The year of publication may determine the length of the copyright term for a work made for hire or an anonymous or pseudonymous work.
  • The year of publication may determine the length of the copyright term if the work was created before January 1, 1978, and was published or registered before that date.
  • The year of publication may determine the length of the copyright term if the work was created before January 1, 1978, and was first published between January 1, 1978, and December 31, 2002.
  • The date and nation of first publication may determine if a non-U.S. work is eligible for copyright protection in the United States.
  • A certificate of registration creates certain legal presumptions if the work is registered before or within five years after the work was first published.
  • A copyright owner may be entitled to claim statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in an infringement lawsuit if the work was registered before the infringement began or within three months after the first publication of that work.
  • Many of the exceptions and limitations on the copyright owner’s exclusive rights vary depending on whether the work is published or unpublished.
  • As a general rule, works published before March 1, 1989, must be published with a valid copyright notice.
  • The deposit requirements for registering a published work differ from the requirements for registering an unpublished work.
  • Works published in the United States may be subject to mandatory deposit with the Library of Congress.