Last week’s Wednesday post looked at copyright notices as placed on published works.
Today, we’re continuing discussion of copyright formalities with a look at copyright registration,meaning registration of copyrighted works with the United States Copyright Office.*
The U.S. Copyright Office allows authors and publishers to register copyrighted works. Registration can be completed online or by mail (though the Copyright Office prefers online registrations, and I suspect before long online registration may become mandatory).
Registration creates a permanent record of the work and the copyright holder (the person who owns the copyright). In most cases, the copyright holder is the author alone. (For jointly-created works, the Copyright Office permits joint copyright registrations.)
Registration is not required to create or protect the author’s copyright. Copyright exists for unregistered works, because under U.S. law, copyright attaches automatically at the moment the work is created and fixed in a reproducible medium.
That said, copyrighted works must be registered in order to obtain statutory damages for infringement and also for the author (or other copyright holder) to obtain attorney fees in an infringement action.
In other words, you don’t have to register copyright in order to get a copyright, but you do have to register if you want access to certain kinds of damages if your work is stolen and infringed.
The benefits of copyright registration include:
1. Creating a public record of the copyright and the author or copyright holder’s claim of ownership to the work.
2. The ability to file a lawsuit to stop infringement. (For copyrighted works originating in the U.S.A., the work must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office before an infringement lawsuit can be filed. While the author can register the work immediately before commencing the lawsuit, authors who don’t register copyright in advance will find their available damages substantially more limited than those who register within three months after publication.)
3. The ability to claim statutory damages and attorney fees (either in addition to, or as a substitute for, profit-based damages the copyright holder can prove the infringer made through the illegal use). Authors who do not register copyright are limited to proveable damages based on the infringer’s profits (and sometimes even less).
Note: Statutory damages and attorney fees are available only if copyright is registered within three months after the work’s initial publication. Self-published authors and authors who work with small presses should take care to ensure that the copyright is properly registered in a timely manner. Traditionally-published authors who work with larger presses should check on this also, but generally speaking large presses register copyright on the author’s behalf within the statutory periods.
4. The ability to establish prima facie evidence of the copyright and the owner’s claim, which reduces the burden of proof on the author in copyright infringement cases. Note: this protection applies only if the copyright is registered within five years after initial publication of the work.
5. The ability to register the work with the U.S. Customs Office, which can help to prevent imports of unauthorized (pirated) physicalcopies of the work. (Obviously, the customs office isn’t that helpful when it comes to ebook downloads.)
As you can see, the benefits of registration vastly outweigh the minor inconvenience (and minimal fees) associated with the registration process. Generally speaking, authors shouldn’t register works before publication is scheduled, however, because registration of works which are later purchased by traditional publishers can create problems with the registration and publication process.
A good rule of thumb: don’t register your copyright until the month of its release — and then only if the publisher isn’t handling that process for you.
Do you have works registered with the U.S. Copyright Office? Did you register them yourself or did a publisher handle it for you? I’d love to hear about your experiences (or any questions) in the comments!