Q: I wrote a screenplay as a collaborative effort with three other people, and the four of us have a signed agreement regarding our collaboration. I registered the work with WGA (listing all four of us on the registration) and one of the other people took care of copyrighting the work. Well, he took the work and copyrighted it as him being the sole author. He did not put my name or either of the other two people’s names on it. It was not his idea, he is not the producer, and he did not write the screenplay. He is simply one of four that has developed the story. Now what do we do?
A: See, this is the problem with people. You try to work together, everything appears to be going along swimmingly and then one of them runs off and does something like this. Faithful readers, this is why your Law Law Land bloggers never interact with anyone, let alone each other. We find people as pleasant as the razor blade scene in A Prophet. That’s why we sit in our respective offices with the doors closed, shades drawn, pouring over legal documents, writing blogs, pounding 5-Hour Energies, and trying desperately hard to post humorous comments beneath the photos at http://www.awkwardfamilyphotos.com/.
Unfortunately for you, you went out and interacted other people and now you’re faced with this problem. The good news is that, while having a copyright registration is important if you ever need to enforce your rights against a third party infringer, the registration itself and the information therein do not determine the ownership of the work that’s registered. A copyright registration is akin to a notice posted on a large corkboard proclaiming to the world that someone is claiming rights in a work. The Copyright Office simply provides the corkboard and only performs minimal review of the information in the applications it receives. In order to protect against false applications, anyone signing an application certifies that the information is correct to the best of their knowledge. If someone is found to have knowingly lied on an application, they can be fined up to $2,500 pursuant to 17 U.S.C. 506(e). (Author’s Note: As a UCLA grad, I really hate that the code is referred to as U.S.C. — it makes me want to move to Canada.) [Ed. Note: As a USC grad, I really hate this author’s note — it makes me want to send the author to Canada.]
Therefore, just because your “friend” is currently listed in the registration as the sole author and claimant of your script, does not mean that he in fact is. I could file a copyright application listing myself as the author and owner of the film Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and may receive a registration. The risk of a $2,500 fine may be worth the satisfaction I could get from fantasizing that I was responsible for providing the world with Chris Klein’s seminal performance as Det. Charlie Nash, but legally I would have the same rights in that masterpiece as I do now, which unfortunately aren’t any (of course, I would NEVER knowingly file a false application — but I would spend a rainy Saturday watching a brilliantly awful movie).
The facts surrounding the creation of the script, not the copyright registration, will determine who owns what. If the four of you wrote it together, you would each share rights in the work, a fact which was further cemented when you each signed an agreement which presumably confirms your co-ownership of the script. Since copyright transfers can only be effectuated through a written instrument, the only way your “friend” could acquire sole rights in the script is if you and the other two authors, after a wild night at Jumbo’s Clown Room on his dime, signed an agreement transferring all of your respective rights to him. I’ll assume this didn’t happen (at least the part about signing over your rights).
You should rest assured knowing that this incorrect registration shouldn’t affect your rights in the work. Your friend’s main accomplishment was violating a specific U.S. code and opening himself up to a possible fine (something to check off the bucket list). That being said, as mentioned above, his note on the corkboard is telling anyone who’s looking for more information about your script that he is the sole owner. If you’re planning on selling it to someone and they perform a standard copyright search, they’re going to wonder why you’re telling them that you own the script when the registration says otherwise. You’d prefer to avoid having to explain this sordid tale, especially to a risk-averse producer, so you need to correct the registration.
In order to do so, you’ll have to fill out a Form CA which is a document used to correct or supplement a registration (for some reason the Copyright Office calls the supplement an “amplification” — Nigel Tufnel will be disappointed to know that it does not come with a knob that goes to 11). Your case will require an amplification because what your “friend” put in the registration (that he is an author and claimant) is not incorrect, it just needs to be supplemented by the addition of you and the other two authors as co-authors and co-claimants. Eventually you will be issued a “Supplementary Registration.” The old registration won’t be deleted but anyone searching for the title of the script will see both the original and the supplemental registrations. For more info about Form CA from the Copyright Office, click here. Now you go off and have fun filling out bureaucratic forms!
This blog was originally published as part of Legal Ease, Film Independent’s weekly column on legal matters pertaining to the entertainment industry. To see other LEGAL EASE columns please click here.