Federal Trial Court Destroys A Writer’s Guild Myth

Federal Trial Court Destroys A Writer’s Guild Myth

by Jerry Glover
May 18, 2012

Attorneys concentrating in entertainment law will, from time to time, have clients tell them that they have registered their scripts/treatments/manuscripts with the Writers Guild of America (West) and that, as a result, the registration gives them some type of legal or copyright-like protection. A recent federal district court decision, however, has hopefully put that myth to rest. Turina v. Crawley, No. 10-C-4292 (N.D. Ill. February 16, 2012).

In Turina, the plaintiff sued the defendant alleging copyright infringement and several state law claims (this article will focus only on the copyright claim). The plaintiff prepared a manuscript about acupuncture and entered into an agreement with the defendant to edit the document. The plaintiff had registered the unedited manuscript with the U.S. Copyright Office; the defendant registered the edited manuscript with the Writers Guild of Canada.

The Guild, which has its major branch in the United States, is a labor union which primarily represents writers in the film and television industries. The Guild maintains a registration data base that allows Guild members and non-members to register written documents they have created.   The registration gives writers evidence of the time frame in which their registered document may have been created in the event there is ever a dispute between two writers who have created similar scripts; in those cases, date of creation date may be important.

To prove infringement, Turina alleged not only ownership of a copyright in the manuscript but copying by the defendant of original material contained in that manuscript. The court ultimately held that the agreement defendant had with plaintiff to edit her manuscript authorized the defendant to “copy” that document. Slip Op. at 6.

As part of her infringement argument, Turina alleged that defendant’s registration of the manuscript with Guild created an unauthorized copy of the manuscript. The court held that the Guild registration “does not render any alleged ‘copying’ of the manuscript unauthorized.” Id. at 7. The registration did not constitute a publication of the manuscript “rather, the registration creates a sealed file in possession of a third party [the Guild] that can be accessed only by the named parties [the plaintiff and defendant].” Id.

The plaintiff pointed to the Guild’s website and its “Why Register” page which explained that “the purpose of the registration service is to provide a dated record of the writer’s claim to authorship of a particular literary material.” Id. quoting http://www.wgc.ca/service/regfaqx.html#2whyreigsert. That statement and its use of the term “author” seems to give the registrant’s manuscript some copyright-like protection since “author” is a term in copyright law which means, at the very least, that the registration is the creator of the work. But the court noted that the plaintiff had failed to note the remainder of the Guild’s statement, which the court labeled a “telling omission.” Id. Here’s the rest of the Guild statement:

“Please be aware that the Registration Services is NOT a copyrighting service and registration with the Guild does not protect titles or confer any statutory protection nor take the place of copyright registration. …Note that while the [Guild] stores registered literary material for a five-year period, it does not verify the originality or authenticity of the material, make comparisons of registration deposits nor provide any assurances that the registered material enjoys copyright protection.”

Id. at 8 (emphasis in original).

So the Guild registration gave the defendant no rights beyond the ability to point to a time frame in which the manuscript might have been created.

Clients sometimes believe that a Guild registration allows them to have some preemptory right over the subject matter contained in the document thus allowing them to prohibit others from writing about that same subject. This is not true. Clients also believe that Guild registration gives some type of copyright-like protection to their work. This is not true.

This case gives attorneys an “official” document to reference when they find the need to bust the myth of Guild registrations.

Share this post: