In the United States, copyright protection for creative works attaches to qualifying works (like novels) automatically at the time of the work’s creation. Formal registration is not required to create a copyright in an author’s work – however, registration does provide important benefits. For that reason, authors should ensure their creative works are properly copyrighted, preferably within three months after initial publication.
The issue of copyright registration should be addressed in every publishing contract. Authors should know whether the contract obligates the publisher to register copyright, and if not, the author should arrange for registration of the work himself (or herself).
When is a work “published” for copyright registration purposes?
In order to ensure maximum copyright protection (and the availability of statutory damages and attorney fee recovery in case of infringement), copyrights should be registered with the U.S. copyright office within three months after initial publication. Publishing an excerpt on your blog does not constitute “publication” but if you publish your entire novel online, serially or otherwise, it is “published” for copyright purposes. The copyright act does not distinguish between print and electronic publishing, or between traditional and self-publishing — “publication” applies to every available form or format. Also: note that a work is “published” even if the author releases it free of charge.
For electronic works, the publication date is the date the work becomes available for download (or available to read online in its entirety) – for a fee or for free – on the first authorized sale or download site.
For printed works, the publication date is the date the book releases in printed format.
You do not need to register twice, if a book is available in print and ebook format – but the date of “publication” is the date the first format becomes available for sale (or download).
What are the benefits of formal copyright registration?
1. Placing the world on notice of ownership. Registration tells the world who owns the work (and claims the rights associated with ownership). Although intent is not an element of copyright infringement, registration makes it harder for infringers to claim “they didn’t know.” Registration also helps with licensing, by documenting the owner’s identity in a formal way.
2. Statutory damages and attorney fees. If a work is registered within three months after its initial publication, the author is eligible to claim special money damages, and recover attorney fees, in a successful lawsuit against infringers. If the work isn’t registered, the infringer can be forced to stop, but those special damages and attorney fees may not be available.
3. The ability to sue for infringement. Registration of the work is a mandatory prerequisite for filing a lawsuit against an infringer.
4. An easier test for infringement. If copyright is registered within five years after the work’s initial publication date, the registration is “prima facie” evidence that the copyright is valid. This means that the author can prove ownership in court by producing evidence of registration, and the defendant has a much harder time defending against a claim of infringement. This is a powerful legal benefit for an author.
Have questions about this or other copyright topics? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!