Skip to main content

The Difference Between Copyright & WGA Registration

Although they say the odds of your screenplay being stolen in Hollywood are rare, you should still copyright or register your work once you’re done. This brings us to the question “Should I copyright or register it with the WGA?”.

Well, if you want to have the strongest protection that holds up in a court of law then you will want to copyright your work with The U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.

Although copyright protection exists at the moment of creation, registration with the Copyright Office is required before a lawsuit can be brought. If a writer doesn’t register their work, they can not sue in federal court and will only be eligible to receive either the amount the infringement made or the amount they lost, whichever is greater.

In most cases that amount is normally ZERO. In the event a writer has to sue for copyright infringement, the real money is in PUNITIVE damages which can only be won through having their script properly registered with the Copyright Office.

In the event that a writer registers their screenplay with the Copyright Office after the infringement has taken place, he or she won’t be able to recover attorneys fees or statutory damages in the lawsuit.

When you register your screenplay with the WGA you don’t actually get much protection in a court of law. It does not give you the proof you need to protect your intellectual property. Aside from only lasting for five years, the WGA registration doesn’t even truly provide proof of ownership (which is the protection you really need).

For a few more points watch the video below.

What About The Poor Man’s Copyright?

Does the poor man’s copyright method work?

The quick answer is NO. The Poor Man’s Copyright is not the same as doing it through the Library of Congress. It’s basically like having sex with a complete stranger and using saran wrap instead of a condom.

In other words, the poor man’s copyright technique is probably the cheapest way to NOT protect your work and the fastest way to get laughed out of court should you ever need to sue someone for copyright infringement.

Just for the record and purposes of this video, I’m only referring to the law in the United States. I have no idea how effective or ineffective a poor man’s copyright is in the U.K., France or anywhere else.

Now, you’ve probably heard from your relative, a random person on a writer’s forum or your English teacher that you should mail your script or novel to yourself once you’re finished. This way, if anybody steals your work before you get a chance to actually register it — then you’re covered.

Wrong. In fact this is so wrong…and has been going around for so long, that the U.S. Copyright Office spells it out clearly on their website that if you go this route in court, then you’re screwed. They state in plain English that “The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a ‘poor man’s copyright.’ There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”

I’m not going to get into the history of where the whole poor man’s copyright came from, but all you need to know is that it doesn’t work in a court of law and that by default your work already has a form of copyright protection the minute you create it.

Based on Copyright legislation that went into effect on January 1, 1978, all your work is automatically copyrighted from the time you create it and it’s “fixed” in some recognizable way. So for instance, the minute you finish and save your screenplay — you’re good to go in terms of basic copyright protection.

However, notice I said you’re covered by basic copyright protection without registering your work. This means that your work will be legally recognized as your own. In the unfortunate event you do have to sue someone over copyright infringement, your work being properly registered with the Copyright Office is required before you can even move forward with a lawsuit.

If you don’t register your work, then you can’t sue in federal court and you will not be eligible for statutory or punitive damages which is where the real money is if you’re looking to be compensated for your trouble.

So, to sum it all up — just register your work with the Copyright Office if you plan on sending your work out to agents, producers or whoever. It will offer you the most legal protection you can get for the longest period of time and if you want to know why I prefer registering my work with the Copyright Office instead of the WGA, make sure to check out the video linked in the description.

How to write movie characters - online course

Learn to write better characters in your next screenplay

  • Improve Your Characters, Plots & Themes
  • Write Stronger Character Arcs
  • Create More Engaging Conflict
  • And More…

Before You Start Shopping Your Screenplay, Do This

If you plan on pitching your work or doing any other kind of solicitation or business, make sure you’re protected and prepared.

  • Film Pitch Deck Template

  • Film Production Contract Templates

  • Movie Business Plan Template & Investor Package

  • Pitch Deck, Budgeting, Contracts & Investor’s Kit Templates

Jay Carver

Jay Carver is a screenwriter, director and producer. Through his production company J-Style Films, he has done work for companies such as Turner Broadcasting. In the past, he has worked with Hollywood actor Omari Hardwick and won several film festivals including "Best Director".

Leave a Reply