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What the Supreme Court's Recent Copyright Registration Ruling Means for Writers

by ScreenCraft on March 5, 2019

Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the opinion for the unanimous decision that overturns circuit courts' previous rulings on whether a copyright registrant can file suit before the registration is fully processed by the US Copyright Office. Previous rulings allowed for lawsuits to be brought if the copyright registration had merely been filed.

The law now requires that a copyright registration be fully reviewed by the US Copyright Office - regardless of whether they ultimately accept or refuse the application. This process can take several months.

The ruling in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v. will undoubtedly influence future and existing copyright lawsuits in the entertainment industry.

What does this mean for writers?

It's more important than ever to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office in a timely manner, because it often takes several months before you'll receive your notification of copyright registration.

Do writers have to file a copyright registration for their work?

The short answer is no. If your work is written or published in the United States, your work is automatically protected by United States Copyright Law. All you have to do is prove your authorship to claim your copyright. That said, if you want to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement, then you must first register your screenplay with the US Copyright Office.

ScreenCraft offers a fast, secure and easy copyright registration service. Each registration application is carefully reviewed by a licensed entertainment attorney before being submitted to the US Copyright Office. The cost for this service is $99 plus applicable government filing fees. Click here to learn more.

The reason why Congress requires registration before litigation is to ensure a public record of ownership of copyrighted works. Are there other ways to prove ownership? Yes, of course. But in order to bring a lawsuit, a US copyright registration is required.

Is there a high risk that my screenplay will be stolen?

There is not a high risk that a reputable producer or executive will outright steal a screenplay because it is much more costly for them to expose themselves to copyright lawsuits than to simply acquire a screenplay via purchase or option agreement. Most industry professionals are fully aware of copyright protection and they would not risk their career by brazenly stealing and producing a screenplay that does not belong to them. Instances of this happening are extremely rare. A more serious risk is that a sneaky producer will dupe a writer into signing an unfavorable contract agreement - so be careful and be sure to hire an entertainment attorney before signing your work away to anyone.

Can you copyright work in the public domain?

While you may not copyright work that already exists in the public domain, you may certainly copyright a derivative work - such as a screenplay or novel that is a fresh take on a Shakespeare play or a Charles Dickens character. This can be a valuable way to leverage pre-awareness of intellectual property in the public domain in your own work. In fact, ScreenCraft has a screenplay competition for film and TV scripts that is tailored specifically for scripts based on public domain works. Learn more about the ScreenCraft Public Domain Screenplay Competition here.

Is a WGA registration as good as a US Copyright registration?

No. They are different in that a U.S. Copyright registration is a prerequisite for litigation.


The information provided in this blog post is extremely general in application and therefore should never be taken as legal advice for a specific need. Always consult a knowledgeable attorney for your own legal issues.


Related links:

Read the Supreme Court opinion here.

Learn more about US Copyright vs. WGA Registration here.

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