What’s The Best Way To Copyright Your Screenplay?
A large component of being a working screenwriter is knowing how to legally protect your work. Creative Screenwriting Magazine interviewed entertainment attorney Justin Sterling Esq. to tell you everything you need to know.
Upon the creation of any work, that work is automatically protected by the United States Copyright laws, providing that there is some tangible proof of that work having been created. This is true even for unpublished works. However, our legal rights in regards to automatic copyrights are severely limited.
Particularly with works and things available online it is very easy for someone else to copy content and use it as their own. One must have some way of proving that a work is their own. Simply marking that work with a date and the word copyright is not sufficient.
Poor Man’s Copyright
Many are under the impression that they can establish a work’s date of creation with a “poor man’s (or woman’s) copyright. ”The “poor man’s copyright” is the act of mailing oneself a sealed envelope containing the work they wish to copyright.
This, however, may not necessarily act as evidence in court in favor of a copyright having been established. The United States Postal Service does not require that an envelope is sealed before being mailed. As a result, the United States Postal Service actively warns individuals against attempting to rely on a registered or certified self-addressed envelope as proof of a copyright.
United States Copyright Office of the Library of Congress
Prior to its establishment, the role of administering copyright protections had been left to the courts. Currently, the Copyright Office carries out its duties in accordance with the 1976 Copyright Act as well as the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Individuals truly invested in protecting their work should register that work with the Library of Congress and the Writers Guild of America (WGA.) Screenwriters interested in legally protecting their intellectual property (IP) should prioritize registering that IP with the United States Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.
Registering with the Library of Congress costs around $40.00. Registration can be completed online or submitted by mail. Doing so protects that work for the duration of the author’s life plus 70 years. If the author is a corporation or submitting their work anonymously, then that work is covered for the shorter of either 95 years following publication or 120 years following creation.
For more specific, but easily digestible knowledge about the workings of the United States Copyright Office as it may relate to you or your work, go to their website at www.copyright.gov and check out the Circulars for more information.
Copyright Registration with the Library of Congress allows immediate access to court and allows one to recover attorney’s fees in the event that legal action is necessary. The benefit of attorney’s fees is stipulated by registration having been completed prior to infringement or within 90 days of publication. Registration with the Library of Congress acts as prima facie evidence of ownership so long as the registration was completed prior to or within 5 years of the work having been published. This means that such registration acts as “sufficient to establish fact” regarding ownership of a creative work.
Copyright registration also allows for a written court order compelling a party to refrain from some action that infringes on a copyright. This is known as an injunction.
Injunctions are a type of “special remedy” that allows a court to force a party to stop distributing the infringing work immediately. This is powerful for screenwriters to use against studios. While studios have a lot of industry power, an injunction sends United States Marshals into that studio to confiscate any and all media containing the infringing work.
The mere threat of this contingency is a huge advantage to have as the holder of a copyright.
It is important to note that registration with the Library of Congress is required before a lawsuit can be brought. Due to the lengthy nature of registration, it is best to register a work as soon as possible. In the event that one has not registered their copyright for a work that has been stolen, the creator could lose out on potentially enormous streams of revenue in the time it takes for their registration to be processed.
If an author has failed to register their work before needing to bring about a lawsuit that the author may pay for expedited registration. The cost for expedited registration is around $580.00. In the case that a writer only registers their work with the Library of Congress after the infringement has taken place, that writer will be barred from recovering statutory damages or attorney’s fees.
The law favors those who are vigilant in asserting their rights. Those who sleep on their rights will not be afforded protection. The rule of thumb is to register a copyright as soon as you intend to share that work with others. This includes presenting that work to studios or even just showing an acquaintance. It is best not to take risks when it comes to the ownership of a work.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA)
The Writers Guild of America is a labor union that is composed of writers of television shows, movies, news programs, documentaries, animation, video games, and other new media content. The guild also offers writers (both members and non-members) the ability to register their work with their evidentiary bank to help writers establish a date of creation for their work.
Registration of a work with the evidentiary bank of the WGA lasts for 5 years. Though this time period may seem short, it is possible to renew the registration for additional 5 year periods. One does not have to be a member of the WGA to register a work. The registration fee is $10.00 for members and $20.00 for nonmembers.
These fees are also the fees for renewal of a work after 5 years (unless for some reason the standard fee has been changed by the WGA during that time). As with the Library of Congress, registration with the WGA may be completed online.
Which is better?
Registration with the WGA does not allow for immediate access to court and attorneys fees. Nor does WGA registration act as prima facie evidence of ownership in the legal setting. It does however still act as evidence that can help prove ownership of a creative work as of a certain time.
Registration with the WGA does provide the added benefit of having an employee appear in court to testify regarding the date of submission.
In general, the legal benefits of registering with the Library of Congress outnumber those of the WGA. This is because while the registration with the WGA has its benefits, ultimately these benefits are not strictly legal in nature and as such can only supplement the proper legal protections. If affordable, a screenwriter should register their work with the WGA in addition to the United States Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.
This article contains general legal information for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.
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