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Registering with the US Copyright Office and the WGA doesn't give a writer any rights. It only proves he's claiming ownership. Nevertheless, there are advantages to registration as well as some differences between the two offices. Entertainment lawyer Judith Merians explains:
"The US Copyright Office: Registering a script with the US Copyright Office means the registrant is claiming to be the copyright owner and can sue another for copyright violation," says Merians. "Without a registration, there can be no suit. With registration, any proven claimant is entitled to a statutory $50,000 award, and any other damages proven in a copyright violation suit. US Copyright Office records are open to the public. Anyone can ask for a report on a project through a company like Thomson and Thomson.
"Under US law the laws of other countries who have copyright treaties with the US, any buyer of rights in intellectual property is responsible for knowing what is in the US Copyright Office records whether or not the buyer actually has that knowledge or not. Say Joe Green registers his claim as the copyright owner of his script in the US Copyright Office. Subsequently Big Bux Company buys Joe's script from Jane Brown, a fraudulent seller who put her name on it. Big Bux failed to order a copyright report when purchasing from Jane. Joe files a claim against Big Bux for copyright violation. Big Bux cannot successfully mount a defense stating it didn't know about Joe's copyright claim. The courts will rule that because Joe's claim was available in the public records, Bug Bux had 'apparent knowledge.'
"A writer will be asked for chain of title showing legal ownership when selling a script. Many buyers ask for or order a copyright report. If the writer's name appears in US Copyright Office records as the sole claimant of ownership interest, that is considered a clear chain of title. A production company's attorney is required to have done due diligence and found a clear chain of title to the script before Errors and Omissions insurance can be issued."
The Writer's Guild of America (WGA) is a labor union for film, television, and other media writers. The Guild's primary function is to protect members' financial and creative rights by enforcing contracts, setting minimum payment rates, determining writing credits, and monitoring and collecting residuals. More information can be found at http://www.wga.org.
"Registering your script with the WGA gets you a date-stamped card with your filing number, the date of filing, and the name of your script and the writer," says Merians. "This is merely evidence that you were in possession of that script on that date. The WGA registration can be presented as evidence in a dispute, but the writer will still have to prove his ownership claim."
Registration is inexpensive. To be safe, register with both the US Copyright Office and the WGA. Membership is not required to register with the WGA.