When Should an Author Register Copyright?

We talk a lot on this blog about copyrights in contracts, but I thought I’d take a couple of weeks to cover copyrights in other contexts.

This week, we’re looking at copyright registration issues – specifically, when an author should register his or her work with the U.S. copyright office. 

Is Formal Registration Required for Copyright Protection?

Under U.S. law, copyright protection is available for all published or unpublished works. Registration with the U.S. copyright office is NOT REQUIRED to receive copyright protection (in the U.S.). Copyright attaches automatically at the time a qualifying work is created.

However, registration is required for some other purposes. 

What are the Benefits of Copyright Registration?

Copyright registration establishes a public record of the author or owner’s copyright claim.

In the U.S., works must be registered before the owner can file a lawsuit to stop or seek damages for infringement.

Also, registered U.S. copyrights can be filed with the U.S. customs service, to help prevent importation of infringing copies of the work.

If the work is registered within three months after initial publication (or prior to infringement), the owner can seek statutory damages & attorney fees against infringers. If copyright registration is not completed before infringement (or within that initial 90 days), the owner receives only “actual damages & profits.”

Registrations completed within five years of the initial publication date will establish “prima facie evidence” of copyright ownership in court. 

When Should an Author Register Copyright?

Authors planning to self-publish works should register copyright as close to the initial publication date as possible (preferably on the date the work is originally published). When the author acts as publisher, the author is solely responsible for filing, maintenance, and protection of the copyright.

Authors who intend to traditionally publish, and who don’t publish the work online or in other formats before traditional publication, may want to hold off on formal copyright registration. A copyright registration generally includes the publisher’s name as well as the author’s name. New editions or versions may require re-registration as “new editions” – which creates additional work for a publisher if the book was registered prior to publication.

A warning: Some small publishers do expect the author to register copyright. If you pursue traditional publication, make sure your contract states, expressly, who will take responsibility for registering the copyright. If the contract requires you to register, follow through within the first 90 days after publication!

This is yet another reason why it’s important for authors to have a clear publishing plan. The publishing path you take determines when, and by whom, your copyright “should” be registered. As the author, and copyright holder, you need to make sure you know exactly when and how your copyrights are created, protected, and registered. A little planning may save you a lot of time (and heartbreak) in the future!

How Do I Register Copyright?

For many works, the author (or publisher) can register U.S. Copyright online, at http://www.copyright.gov. The copyright office website has a helpful circular and a tutorial to help with the process, too. It’s possible for authors to hire an attorney or other professional to handle the copyright registration, but the process isn’t that difficult and doesn’t require professional assistance. 

Have you ever registered a copyright on your works? If so, what did you think of the process? If not, does the process seem intimidating to you?