First things first–it may seem like I’m hating on the Writer’s Guild in this post, but I don’t mean to—it’s an awesome organization that provides tons of great opportunities and services which benefit its members. This post is more about addressing my issues with how a certain professor of mine would tell us, as film students, that we didn’t really need to bother registering with the copyright office, since registering my work with the WGAW “basically does the same thing, but it’s cheaper and faster.”
And so, the myth is born.
Should I Register with the Writers’ Guild of America West (WGA)?
Short answer: it depends on what you want.
Will registering your work with the WGA hurt you? No.
Will registering your work with the WGA protect your copyright? No. At least, no more so than what you already had without registering.
While there are many situations that require you register with the WGA (*cough* screen writers *cough*) to even have your material read by producers or agents, registering with the WGA doesn’t affect your legal rights any more than emailing your document to yourself (or physically snail mailing it).
That’s not to say that registering with the WGA is ever a bad idea, it’s just a situation much like wearing a belt (copyright law protection) and then adding suspenders (WGA registration) to also hold up your pants.
Why Would Registering with the WGA Not Be Helpful, Legally Speaking?
REASON 1: Your work is already protected by Federal copyright law! You don’t have to do any kind of registering to get that protection. That’s right—as soon as you type something, put it down on a tangible medium (e.g. paper, a computer, a wall, recording it, etc.), that creative work is yours, and you are automatically protected under copyright law.
‘Tangible Medium’ is a legalese word whose definition doesn’t really help you understand it any better even if you actually read the definition (it’s super dry). What it doesn’t include are things like skywriting, writing in the sand, or potentially on the human skin (that’s still up for debate as of 2014). Basically, if there’s no sense or method of creating permanency, then it’s not a tangible medium. Anything else is up for grabs.
REASON 2: The WGA is a private (read: not government) organization. This means that registering with the WGA doesn’t affect your legal rights (in most instances). Copyright law is federal law. If you have to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement, you’ll be bringing that in a federal court. So, federal rules apply, right? Thus, if you want to improve your legal options (e.g. increasing the amount of money you could get for an infringement suit), it makes sense that the best way to do that is through the Copyright Office, not a private organization.
But If You’re Already Protected by Copyright Law Without Registering, Why Do You Bother Registering?
Great question! The answer has to do with money.
Money, at least, in the sense that if you register your original work with the copyright office, you (1) change/increase the kind of damages (money amount) you can be awarded by a judge in a copyright infringement case, and (2) it makes your work a lot more marketable to a potential buyer (thus getting you more money if you sell the rights).
(1) Change/Increase Your Damages
Without any kind of registration, you get copyright protection, true. What that gets you in a court of law, if someone infringes your work, is ACTUAL DAMAGES. That means exactly what it sounds like—whatever actual damage (financially) you incurred as a result of the infringement (e.g. lost sales), you can get that back. But, that’s it. So, if your actual damages were only 30 cents, that’s what you could recover in a court of law.
With registrations, however (so long as you do it either before any infringement or get it registered within 90 days of the infringement), that changes your options to EITHER ACTUAL OR STATUTORY damages.
If you don’t know what statutory damages are as an artist, well, they’re your best friend. Not so much if you’re an infringer. This is because if you choose to sue for statutory damages (assuming you qualify for them), the judge will ignore what your actual damages were, and instead have the option to award you anywhere from $750 to $150,000 per work infringed.
Note: I mean it when I say per work infringed. This means that if you had a single song and it was copied/infringed a million times, you could get (up to) $150,000 x 1, NOT $150,000 x 1,000,000. However, if you had 12 pieces of art that were infringed, then you could get (up to) $150,000 x 12.
Second Note: The judge has the choice to give you damages anywhere from $750 to $150,000. It’s not guaranteed EVER what amount you’ll get. Thus, if you know your actual damages will exceed what statutory damages will or could grant, you may still want to go with actual damages instead. I’d recommend asking a lawyer if you’re either in or think you’ll be in a situation like that. There are many pro bono (free or really reduced rates) legal organizations with whom you can consult. One such organization is New Media Rights (I interned with them for over a year in law school, and they totally rock).
(2) Other Benefit of Registering: CREDIBILITY
If you ever want to sell your script, artwork, or game, you can potentially increase the purchase price if your work is officially registered with the Copyright Office. Registration with the WGA instead of the Copyright Office doesn’t really have the same effect, although getting both doesn’t hurt (so long as you at least get the Copyright Office).
It’s the same idea as getting the registration/pink slip from a car owner when you buy a car versus not getting that and hoping that you’re paying the actual owner for the car. A copyright registration can also be used to show that the current owner came by that ownership legitimately. Although later owners of a copyright are not required to register the transfer/assignment of the copyright, it’s usually in their best interests to do so. However, that’s not your problem unless you’re the buyer.
Myth 1: “It takes so long for the registration to go through at the copyright office, whereas with the WGA, I get an ID number immediately, and then they even ship me a certificate.”
You know what else comes with certificates? Magic kits [name that reference!]. What this myth doesn’t take into account, though, is that you’re already protected as soon as you put pen to paper, so to speak. Registering with the WGA does nothing for you to gain legal protection because you already have it by operation of law.
If it makes you feel better, I still have my WGA certificate, and the P.O.S. script that I submitted for it has changed so much in five years that I doubt it could be considered comparable to the exciting work I have now. Have I, personally, registered my work with the Copyright Office? Nope. And I’m not stressed about it either. But, that’s just me.
You may feel better after registering with the WGA, so, I mean, that’s a bonus. I did. But I also had zero background in copyright law, so I thought that registering actually protected me. I learned, however, that registration with any private company like them generally has no legal effect for your rights as it pertains to copyright ownership.
As to the time issue for filling out the Copyright Office form…yes, it does take a few weeks to process and be 100% official. That only becomes an issue if you’re registering after you find out about infringement (you get 90 days to have an official registration to sue for statutory damages) or if you want to sell your work with a registration and are strapped for time.
But, remember, you’re still protected for actual damages regardless of registration.
Also, the Copyright Office’s form for a literary work is 2 pages of fill-in-the-blank, if you’re the sole author and you’re just registering (it gets slightly more complicated if there are multiple authors or you’re doing something other than registering, but it’s still pretty easy to do and they have instructions). It requires your name, info, the name of the work, the authors involved and a whopping $35.
How long does that protection last, you ask? Your lifetime plus 70 years after you die! What does the WGA give you? 5 years of “protection” for $20, after which you have to renew. Thus, if you renewed just once at the WGA, you’ve already paid more than if you’d just registered with the Copyright Office.
Let’s see what the WGA’s FAQ says:
“Registering your work with the WGAW Registry does not take the place of registering with the Library of Congress, U.S. Copyright Office. However, both create valid legal evidence that can be used in court.”
[‘Both’ create valid evidence means that the copyright office alone does that, and registration at the copyright office means you change what damages are available to you. Registration with the WGA changes nothing. It doesn’t hurt, but doesn’t improve your rights, either.]
“Even if you have copyright through the Library of Congress, registering with the WGAW Registry creates a separate legal record for your material.”
[This says the same thing as above, where the copyright office already provides you a legal record for your material, and the WGA is the suspenders when you’re already wearing a belt.]
“Titles are not registered with the WGAW Registry, as they are not protected by registration. “
[The WGA correctly states that to protect your titles, you have to file a trademark application through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office—for which you should contact an attorney, as it’s rather technical and has tons of legalese.]
“Does registration help in determining writing credits?”
“Generally, no. However, if there is a dispute as to authorship or sequencing of material by date, then registration may be relevant. Questions concerning the WGA credit determination procedures should be directed to the Credits department at (323) 782-4528. Or click here for more information: Credits Survival Guide.”
While you could argue that the copyright office doesn’t do much more with regard to fact checking, registrants at the copyright office certify on a legal document that they’re the owner, and if they’re lying, they can be fined (and you could then potentially sue them for copyright infringement, depending on what they did with your material).
Myth #2: If I don’t register with the WGA, how else would I prove the date I created this work?
Seeing as you don’t need to register with the Copyright Office to prove the date of creation or have rights to sue for infringement, it stands to reason that you don’t legally need to register with the WGA to do the same thing.
Registering with the WGA, mailing something to yourself, or having someone mail something to you all does the same thing: it shows that you had a physical (or digital) copy of that work at that specific time. It doesn’t do anything evidence-wise to prove you’re the author—as stated in their FAQ that registration doesn’t mean it’s proof of authorship (practically speaking, it can’t, since they don’t want to have to bother going through the oodles of submissions and do background checks).
In a copyright infringement case, you end up using other evidence to prove the date of creation – such as emails, meta data, etc. In that case, registration with the WGA is helpful only in that you had a copy of the work on the day of registration, not that you created it any time before then.
Yes, registering with the WGA can be of some use, just not much in the way of legal protection, since you already have that without any kind of registration. If you want to really protect your interests in a potential lawsuit, register with the Copyright Office, and then consider submitting to other organizations as you want or need for particular agents. If you’re at all worried about your rights, consult with an attorney.