You can (and should) protect your script before posting it online, submitting it to contests, or asking for feedback.

Not only does it protect your work, but in fact, most organizations will require it. Why?

As Professor Warren puts it, “If someone sends you a script about a fairy princess, and you happen to be producing a script about a fairy princess—they might say you stole it.” And, of course, if they really did steal it, you (the writer) would want to be protected. It goes both ways.

So, before you submit any scripts to our Feedback Team (or anywhere else!), please protect your script.

TL/DR: While there are several methods, we recommend registering your scripts with the Writers Guild of America West to ensure you're completely covered.

First, what can you copyright?

In the US, you cannot copyright ideas—only written works with action, dialogue, etc. As the US Copyright Office explains:

What does copyright protect?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section "What Works Are Protected."

This means that, while you should exercise discretion when sharing ideas or outlines, there's nothing you need to do (or legally can do) to protect yourself until you have a script.

In most countries (including the US), copyrights are automatic.

When is my work protected?

Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.


Do I have to register with your office to be protected?

No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration.”

Further, in general, most countries honor each other's copyrights—that is, if your script is automatically copyrighted in India, the US government will recognize that you own that material and vice versa. That said, you'll want to check Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States, to ensure your country is included.

Is my copyright good in other countries?

The United States has copyright relations with most countries throughout the world, and as a result of these agreements, we honor each other's citizens' copyrights. However, the United States does not have such copyright relationships with every country. For a listing of countries and the nature of their copyright relations with the United States, see Circular 38a, International Copyright Relations of the United States.

So, if copyrights are automatic, why register at all?

As mentioned briefly before, many contests, studios, agencies, and producers will require you to register your script before submission in order to protect themselves against lawsuits.

However—there are a couple of reasons why you want your script be registered as well:

1. If you ever have to go to court because someone stole your script, you'll need a filed copyright or registration with the Writers Guild of America.

If you have an official copyright and it's infringed upon, you have a better chance at getting compensated for damages and attorney's fees in court.

Why should I register my work if copyright protection is automatic?

Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration” and Circular 38b, Highlights of Copyright Amendments Contained in the Uruguay Round Agreements Act (URAA), on non-U.S. works.

2. But, most importantly: If you ever have to prove your copyright, you'll also need definitive proof of when you wrote the script.

If you can't prove you wrote the script before the person who stole it, then you're out of luck.

We Recommend: Writers Guild of America West ($20)

The simplest, most legitimate way to protect your script is by registering it with the WGA. Registrations are just $20 and are valid for 5 years. You can register through the WGA even if you live outside the US (see below for more details).

There are two WGAs—East and West. In general, if you're east of the Mississippi, you submit to East and vice versa. However, it doesn't actually make a difference and frankly, the West's website is much easier to navigate.

Click here to register your script with WGA West.

Tip: Don't include your WGA registration on your script's title page unless explicitly asked. It's not necessary.

For International Writers Using WGA West

We reached out to WGA West to double-check that international writers can register their scripts. They got back to us with an affirmative:

“The WGAW Registry is available worldwide. Registration of work is legal valid evidence and, if necessary, the Registry will submit material as evidence to any legal proceeding or arbitration regardless of location or membership.”

WGAWEST Registry, Customer Service (May 13, 2020)

Some sections of the registration form will be a bit odd, but here's how you handle those:

Identification

Here, you're asked to where enter your “SS# [Social Security Number] or Equivalent.” The drop-down options include:

  • Social security number
  • Driver's license number
  • WGA account number / other government issued ID

If you have a driver's license in your country, you can select that option. If you do not, select the third option: “WGA Acct #/Other Gov't-Issued ID”

Now, you can enter a number that is either your:

  • Passport number
  • Other government-issued identification number

Whichever you use, be sure that you leave out any special characters or hyphens.

Address

You'll find the address section is designed for North American addresses—specifically the “State/Province” section and “Zip” sections.

For the state, you'll find options for the US and Canada. If your state isn't listed or you don't have a state, select the “–” option (just above AL). Here is a list of what all their abbreviations mean if you aren't familiar.

For “Zip,” postal codes are also accepted.

And, finally, the WGA West also assured us that the phone number field s optional and may be left blank.

My information won't fit!

Don't worry. The WGA West rep explained that you should enter as many characters as you can, but then you're fine:

“Constraints with the online system have forced us to limit the amount of space in the identification and phone number fields. When registering online, authors should enter as much of the identification number as possible.

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“Not having the complete number on file should not present any problems as long as the author provides us with a photo ID when requesting specific information from his or her registration records.”

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WGAWEST Registry, Customer Service (May 13, 2020)

And there you have it! That's how you register your script with the WGA West as an international writer.

Back-up: Email Your Script to Yourself

Please note that while we strongly recommend using the WGA West's registration system to be as safe as possible—and some competitions will require a formal registration specifically—if your budget is tight, this alternative method will offer some protection.

As we mentioned before, in most countries, copyrights are automatic. If you write it, it's yours. The difficulty is proving when you wrote it. So, to get your work timestamped, email your script to yourself and save it. That's it.

While the US Copyright Office says that physically mailing your script to yourself (a “Poor Man's Copyright”) doesn't offer legal protection. What this means is, if you have to go to court, you'll need to file the official copyright or WGA registration.

I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright.” What is it?

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.

My non-lawyer-ly impression is it's a bogus excuse to collect your filing fee. (Am I cynical? Maybe.)

I reached out to my entertainment lawyer, who works out of LA, and while he couldn't say yes or no to this method, he confirmed that the primary concern is with a timestamp.

In sum, registering with WGA before there is a problem is preferable because the WGA:

  • Gives you evidence of your copyright that would hold up in court
  • Is a simple, relatively affordable process.

So, register your scripts with the WGA West before sending them out! 🙂

This article was updated May 14, 2020.