Justine: Protecting Your Work Before You Copyright It

79097750 - autorship word cloud concept. vector illustrationThis past Friday, I attended a free webinar by the folks who do Masterclass (I had previously taken James Patterson’s class on writing and Aaron Sorkin’s class on screenwriting). The topic of the webinar was protecting your intellectual property before you copyright it, and it was presented in large part by folks who work for the Writer’s Guild of America West (WGAW…there is a sister organization, Writer’s Guild of America East. They do the same thing, but the organizations do not share information with each other).

I had always thought the Writer’s Guild was for screenwriters only, but it turns out any artist – as long as they can put their idea/story/script/play/lyrics on paper – can have their intellectual property protected. This topic is relevant to me right now because I’m entering contests and judges (aka other writers) are seeing my work before it’s done. I always worry that someone will take my idea and use it/run with it (especially if they’re a faster writer than I am). If I ever had to prove in a court of law when my idea originated, the WGAW (or WGA East) can help.

For $20 US, anyone, anywhere can register their work with either WGAW or WGAE (pick one, not both). You don’t have to be a US citizen (in fact, the majority of their registries are from folks outside the US). The only requirements are:

  1. Your body of work is in some sort of paper format or can be printed on 8 1/2 x 11 paper (sorry, no videos, but sheet music, drawings, sketches, story summaries, scripts, etc. are all good), and
  2. You have a government issued ID. This means the body of work has to be registered in your legal name, not your pen name or your LLC, like you can do with copyright.

Once they have your body of work (which, if you submit electronically, is immediately), they issue you a registration number and you will later receive a certificate of registration. It lasts for 5 years, at which time you’re given a 90-day window to renew. If you don’t renew, they destroy either the paper or electronic copy, as well as your record.

If your body of work changes such that it is very different from the original (for example, in my case, my original story was about the Cressingham family and their siblings…now it’s about Nate and his friends, and even thought some of the plot points are the same, it’s a fundamentally different series now), you should register the new version of the work, too. This means you now have two versions registered (one does not usurp the other, nor do you want it to, as I’ll explain below). Each time your story changes enough that it seems like a different tale the previous registration, you should register the new version, and keep the registration on the old one.

So…why bother registering?

  • You’ve come up with a fabulous idea for a story and you want to make sure no one steals your idea…or if they do, you can prove you had it first.
  • You aren’t releasing your books until at least 3 in the series are done and you want to make sure no one beats you to market with the same idea.
  • You’d like a little extra protection as you pass your MS around in contests or to beta readers.

If there is ever a question about the origin of your work (let’s say you’re suing someone or going to arbitration because you insist they stole your story idea or vice versa), WGAW would be subpoenaed to provide the information about your registration and the work itself (whatever you submitted as “the work”). It’s clear-cut evidence of when your idea happened.

The nice thing about WGAW, too, is that the records are confidential. It’s not like registering your work with the copyright office, which is part of the public record (more on that in another blog). No one can search the records for “love story in New England” or “romantic suspense with shifters.” The only time information about your registry comes out of cold storage, so to speak, is if it’s subpoenaed.

Here’s an example of why you’d want to register your work and keep your registrations up-to-date if you have multiple iterations of a story: The woman from WGAW told us about a case she’s currently involved in. The client, a French screenwriter, registered her original screenplay over 5 years ago, and registered subsequent versions of it as it changed. She did not maintain the original registration, it lapsed, and her record was purged. Cut to today…another screenwriter published an eerily similar script to the first one she registered (and let lapse), which she insists was stolen from her, and now she’s trying to prove that the original idea was hers…except, remember? She let her original registration expire. The burden of proof is on her to prove that the original idea was hers. It seems rather cut and dried, but it’s not, according to the woman from WGAW.

So…a relatively inexpensive process that protects your ideas/concepts from being stolen before you can get them copyrighted? Seems like a good idea to me. What do you think? Worth the money and effort?

For information on registering your work with WGAW, visit their website.

(Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. If you have questions about protecting your work, you should contact an intellectual property attorney.)


3 thoughts on “Justine: Protecting Your Work Before You Copyright It

  1. Justine, after our in depth conversation about this I did register my novel (five chapters to date) with synopsis, character descriptions, and four book outline. I’ve entered a lot of contests lately, and although I would love to trust everyone that read it for judging, you just don’t know what people are capable of doing. I’m not a fast writer and I would hate for someone to bring my ideas to market before I get the chance.

  2. Pingback: Justine: Your Intellectual Property Questions Answered – Eight Ladies Writing

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