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What protection for a screenwriter does the Writers Guild offer?

By Robert L. Seigel

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Question: What protection for a screenwriter does the Writers’ Guild offer and how does being a member affect negotiation of contracts? Can anyone apply to be a member or do you first have to have a script produced or just optioned or purchased?

There are certainly several benefits for a writer to become a Writers Guild of America (WGA) member. There are standard terms which govern a relationship between a WGA signatory production company and a WGA member including minimum rates for various writing services. The WGA signatory and the WGA member can include provisions not covered by the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) such as profit participation as long as there is no conflict between a term in their agreement and the MBA. If there is such an inconsistency, then the MBA term would govern.

There are health and pension benefits for WGA members that can pay their dues and work enough to continue to qualify for such health benefits.

If there is a dispute concerning writing credits, there are WGA rules and an arbitration system to determine who receives writing credit on a WGA project.

However, a writer cannot just sign up to be a WGA member. The writer has to render a sufficient amount of writing services for or have the rights to a screenplay or teleplay acquired by a WGA signatory to be eligible for WGA membership thereafter.

In addition, a writer has to bear in mind that once a writer becomes a WGA member, that writer only can work for WGA signatories. If a WGA member works for a non-signatory production entity, then that WGA member can be fined or suspended by or even expelled from the WGA.

At the start of a writer’s career, a writer may want the flexibility of being able to work for WGA and non-WGA signatories. If that writer does develop a writing career eventually, the writer may not want to work for non-signatories and have to “re-invent the deal” each time he or she is engaged to render writing services or has the rights to a script optioned or purchased. In that case, it makes sense for a writer to become a WGA member.

If a writer has had a play produced or a book published, the writer can be deemed to be a "professional writer" and the WGA signatory would have to offer the WGA minimums concerning compensation to the writer at the writer’s insistence.

You should check the WGA website (www.wga.org) for further information.

About Robert L. Seigel

Robert L. Seigel ([email protected]) is a NYC entertainment attorney and a partner in the Cowan DeBaets Abrahams & Sheppard LLP law firm which specializes in the representation of clients in the entertainment and media areas.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is intended to provide general information and does not constitute legal advice. You should not act or rely on such information without seeking the advice of an attorney and receiving counsel based on your particular facts and circumstances. Many of the legal principles mentioned might be subject to exceptions and qualifications, which are not necessarily noted in the answers. Furthermore, laws are subject to change and vary by jurisdiction.
Screenwriting Article by Robert L. Seigel

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