Then there are screenwriters. Unlike most other types of writers, screenwriters do something wholly different in terms of how they market their work; they sell it all. Not for nothing. In fact, screenwriters can make a lot of money if they're successful. A cheap screenplay – say, a script written by a new writer – is often bought for the bargain-basement rate of $100,000. And there are scripts from veteran scribes that sell for seven figures. So working screenwriters often have it pretty darn good. But what do they give up in exchange for such luxurious compensation?
Copyright. Yes, that's right. Unlike most writers, screenwriters sell their work lock, stock and barrel. If the studio buys a script, the studio can change it from top to bottom without asking permission from the writer, who is presumably off counting his money somewhere, unconcerned. Or busily writing the next script he intends to sell for even more.
People are often surprised to learn that the buyer of a film script generally has total control of it. In fact, screenwriters typically sign a document that would be anathema to writers of any other genre. It's called a Certificate of Authorship (AKA, a "C of A") and by signing it, the screenwriter declares that the buyer of the script is now, for all intents and purposes, the author of the script. Once that document has been executed, the writer has no more ability to control the script that I have power to change the tides. The buyer (usually a studio or producer) is the new author, owner and controller of the property. In fact, the writer becomes, for a time, the employee of the producer. That's because years ago screenwriters in Hollywood came together to form a union. And that union, the Writers Guild of America, negotiates on behalf of all working screenwriters. Leaving aside the fact that the union is split into two independent halves (the WGA east and the WGA west), the important thing to remember here is that the union is the only protection screenwriters have from the producers, whose exploitive ways are legend. While the union doesn't get in the way of the transfer of copyright from writer to producer, it safeguards screen credits and sets minimum pay levels for the purchase of written material. In this way, the WGA acts like an athlete's union, such as the NFLPA or the NBAPA.
For those writers who want to know more, I suggest you consult the excellent website of the WGA – wga.org. There, you can read the latest MBA (Minimum Basic Agreement) between the writers and the producers. It's a document that was forged by the last writers' strike, only a handful of years ago. But for the purposes of this blog, the important thing to remember is that screenwriters sell everything – including copyright – to the buyer/producer of a script. Once sold, the writer retains no "droits moral" or moral rights of authors regarding the material. From that point on, all that protects the writer is the union.