Cinema Law: Getting the (Screenwriting) Credit You Deserve, For WGA Members and Non-Members Alike
Q: Is there some way to ensure that I receive a “written by” or “screenplay by” credit when the client is not a WGA signatory (and I’m not a member either)?
I understand that when I’m hired to write a script I won’t own the copyright, but I want to make sure I get the proper credit for my work. Is it just something I have to specify in a contract?
There is a way to ensure you receive the proper credit, but the rules for crediting differ drastically for Writers Guild members and non-members, so let’s take them one at a time.
If you’re a non-member and you’re dealing with a client who isn’t a signatory (i.e. a company that wishes to hire a WGA member), then the surest way to get what you want is to specify it clearly in writing. It’s that simple! Of course, you should always put the contract in writing before you start working on the script; never start work on a project until all the issues are hammered out. Those issues include the scope of the project, the number of drafts you may have to write, the time frame for completion, your financial compensation and, of course, how you will be credited. Remember this and you’ll be in good stead: contracts before content.
You can ask for any credit you want, but keep in mind that when you work outside the WGA sphere, you may have to share that credit with someone else, including non-writers. Most contracts are designed to ensure that both parties get something for their involvement. (Lawyers refer to these as “bilateral contracts.”) They are reciprocal, so each party gives something and gets something in return. What this means for you is that any producer or director who participates in the story-breaking process may request a “story by” or other vanity credit. They may even request a joint “screenplay by” credit. It’ll be your choice to permit or deny that during the negotiation process.
I want to add an important wrinkle here. A contract is only enforceable if the other party can deliver what they’ve promised. In other words, if you make a deal with a client who doesn’t have the power to give you the credit you bargained for, you probably won’t get the credit, and you may not be able to force him to give it to you even if you sued him. Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens periodically in the film world, usually when there are multiple production companies, financiers and studios in the mix: A production company will commission a screenplay, but the crediting authority belongs to the financier or studio. So before you sign on the dotted line, make sure the other party has the authority to give you the credit you want.
WGA membership takes all the guesswork out of the crediting process. Instead of haggling over credits with the client, the Writers Guild does it for you. While the rules may differ depending on the type of project, the number of writers who are or were involved, and whether the client is WGA signatory, the basic gist (per the WGA West website) is that:
The Guild has the sole authority to determine writing credits on theatrical, television and new media projects written under its jurisdiction. A company cannot guarantee that you will receive writing credit or any particular form of writing credit.
There are other benefits too, if you’re eligible for membership: better salary, residual profits and health insurance. But there’s one benefit that rises above all others: If a client welches on a contract, the WGA can help you enforce it because it’s a huge union with a lot of sway in the entertainment industry. Having it on your side increases your odds of a favorable outcome.
Which is a good thing, because if the other party violates the agreement, the only ways to enforce it are through litigation or arbitration, both of which are costly and time consuming. If you’re a professional writer, you almost certainly don’t have the resources to fund a litigation. Sadly, this isn’t a problem faced only by writers and other freelance talent. The judicial system is generally off limits to anyone who can’t afford it. It’s a systemic problem that goes back generations and isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.
Regardless of your union membership status, getting the credit you want is a matter of understanding your rights before you get involved with a client. Although there are many great tools out there to help you figure out those rights, the onus is on you to know and understand them before you start writing. MM
Have a legal question you want our advisers to answer in a future installment of Cinema Law? Send it into firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Cinema Law Question.”
Gregory R. Kanaan, Esq. is a Boston-based attorney representing artists, filmmakers and designers in Massachusetts and New York. His practice focuses on entertainment and art law, as well as intellectual property issues. He has resolved disputes involving copyrights, publicity rights, trademarks, and contractual disputes for a wide range of independent filmmakers and design professionals. Prior to becoming an attorney, Mr. Kanaan was a television producer, creating documentaries and series for The Discovery Channel, Court TV, TLC, and A&E, among others. When not practicing law, Mr. Kanaan writes for his blog, The [Legal] Artist, which aims to educate creative professionals on the legal issues that affect them most.
The answers to legal questions provided here are for general education and information purposes only, and are not legal advice or legal opinions. The information provided in this article is not intended to create a lawyer-client relationship between Mr. Kanaan and a reader.