The Role of Private Intellectual Property Rights in Markets for Labor and Ideas: Screen Credit and the Writers Guild of America, 1938-2000

Catherine L. Fisk, UC Irvine School of Law


This history of screen credit and the Writers Guild of America focuses on the union’s administration of private intellectual property rights to facilitate the labor market for writers and the market for ideas, scripts, and treatments for film and TV. Screen credit is one of the very few forms of intellectual property in the modern economy that is designed by workers for workers and without the involvement of the corporations that control most intellectual property policy. Based on research in the archives of the Writers Guild not available to the public, this article argues that the Guild survived conditions that might lead to de-unionization because of the value it provides writers and employers in managing markets for labor and ideas. In particular, the Writers Guild administers two private intellectual property rights systems – the screen credit system and the script registry – that facilitate transactions between writers and producers. The experience of the Guild suggests that under the right circumstances unions can support innovation by creative private intellectual property rights systems to address structural problems in labor markets for talented short-term workers and the start-up enterprises that hire them.