The Jurisdiction of the Writers Guild to Determine Authorship of Movies and Television Programs


This paper, part of a symposium on literary-legal scholarship on the concept of “Juris-Dictions,” explores the uses of the concept of jurisdiction in the process by which the Writers Guild of America (WGA or Guild) – the union that represents film and TV writers – determines screen credit for writers. Screen credit is governed by the terms of a contract between the WGA and production companies stipulating that the WGA has the exclusive jurisdiction to determine screen and advertising credit for writers who worked on the production. The jurisdiction of the WGA to determine credit – which is the power of writers to decide authorship of works that the writers do not own and of which they are not the legal “authors” within the meaning of copyright law – is enormously important to writers. It gives writers the power to determine who should be known as the author of a film or TV script, which affects how much writers get paid, whether their future work will get produced, how they are regarded within the Hollywood community, and how films and TV programs are interpreted by critics and by that segment of the public who pay attention to writers. Hollywood writers use the legal concept of jurisdiction to assert their power to define authorship, and they use multiple forms of procedural and substantive law to determine the credited author of a script. Because writers are not owners of their work, and because many people contribute to the finished film, writers are credited for stories that are not quite the same as the ones they actually wrote. Yet they insist on credit nevertheless, and for good reason. Ever anxious about their status as the authors of a film in a world in which directors and actors are far more likely to be seen by the public and by critics as the authors of a film or TV show, writers use their jurisdiction over writing credit to protect their status as authors. While jurisdiction is always the device by which law sanctions the exercise of power, the jurisdiction of the Writers Guild reflects and creates a particular form of power in Hollywood: the power to define individual authorship of a collective creation, which in turn creates the power to be paid to tell stories.

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