The day after John Ridley took home the Oscar for his screenplay adaptation of Solomon Northup’s book 12 Years a Slave, news broke that things were icy between the screenwriter and the film’s director Steve McQueen. According to TheWrap.com, Ridley and McQueen “were embroiled in a bitter feud regarding credit for the film’s Oscar-winning screenplay…”
Basically, McQueen felt he should share the screenplay credit, while Ridley and the film’s distributor Fox Searchlight felt differently. In the end, Ridley won the Best Adapted Screenplay prize while McQueen shared the Best Picture Oscar with fellow producers Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, and Anthony Katagas.
I don’t know the particulars of the arrangement between Ridley and McQueen, specifically whether or not the director/producer actually put finger to keyboard, but the alleged “beef” raises the question of when/if it’s ever appropriate for the person(s) that help(s) shape a story to claim writing credit.
In music, songwriting credit goes to the author of the lyrics and the melody, while in television, a team writers works on a show. The Writers Guild of America breaks down television writer credits like this:
In general, the term “writer” means a person employed by a Company to write literary material or a person from whom a Company purchased literary material who at the time of purchase was a “professional writer,” as defined in the MBA [Minimum Basic Agreement]. For purposes of credit, a team of writers, as defined in the Television Credits Manual Section I.B., is considered as one writer.
If literary material covered under the MBA is written by one member of a team, separate and apart from the work of the team, such literary material shall be considered separate from the literary material by the team for purposes of assessing contributions to the final shooting script. Therefore, such individual is eligible to receive writing credit as an individual writer and/or as a member of a team.
The Guild gets more specific (and a little confusing) when it comes to Screenwriting credit, parsing out the difference between “story”, “screen story”, “screenplay”, “written by”, and the requisite credits due, which you can read here.
This confusion is testament to the fact that as singular as the writing process is, the creation of a story (or screenplay or book or article or song) is a collaborative effort. Writers only get better when they have the right readers.
That said, if there were a Feedback, Shaping, or Editor credit (and a case can certainly be made that there should be), the appropriate people should get their due. But since we’re talking writing, i.e. the process of taking in that great feedback and breaking your head trying to figure out which critiques serve the story and which don’t, the legal credit must lay firmly with the one(s) responsible for doing just that.