A Quick Review of (U.S.) Copyrights

We’ve talked about copyrights here before, but I’ve had so many questions on the topic in recent weeks that it seemed an appropriate time for an overview.

Let’s take a look at the “high points” of U.S. Copyright law. 

© © ©

1. In the U.S., copyright protection is automatic, and attaches to qualifying works at the time of creation.

You don’t have to register copyrights to own them, or to stop someone from infringing your legal rights in your work. However, you do have to register the copyright before you can file a lawsuit against an infringer.

2. Registration of copyrights grants the copyright holder certain additional benefits, including statutory damages and attorney fees.

Registering a copyrighted work within 90 days after initial publication grants the copyright holder certain statutory protections. These protections include the right to receive statutory damages from infringers and to recover attorney fees spent on copyright enforcement.

3. Registration should occur within 90 days of initial publication, but authors don’t need to register unpublished works.

Many authors worry that agents or publishers will steal their work if the work isn’t copyrighted before submission. In almost all cases, this is a completely unfounded fear. In most cases, it’s actually less expensive for publishers to purchase a book (or for agents to represent it) than to steal an author’s work.

Also, many authors think they need to register unpublished works to protect the copyright. This isn’t true. Works should be registered with the U.S. copyright office within 90 days of initial publication — in any form or format. Note: it can inconvenience a publisher if the work is previously registered, so it’s generally advisable not to register too early.

4. Self-published works should be registered within 90 days of initial publication.

Authors who self-publish also need to register their works with the U.S. copyright office in order to benefit from the statutory damages and attorney fees provisions. Like traditionally published works, registration should occur within 90 days after initial publication.

5. Publishing contracts normally state who has responsibility for registering the work with the copyright office. 

Large publishers, and many smaller ones also, typically handle the copyright registration on the author’s behalf. However, some publishers (mainly smaller houses) require authors to register their own copyrights. In either case, the publishing contract should state who has responsibility for copyright registration. Authors should check their contracts and know who will be handling registration.

6. Copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years–but a shorter time may apply to anonymous or pseudonymous works.

In the United States, the standard copyright term is “life of the author plus 70 years.” Some exceptions and deviations do exist, but they don’t apply to most authors. (If you believe an exception may apply to you, consult an attorney.) 

Works published anonymously, or under pseudonyms, may have shorter copyright terms, in part because it’s impossible to determine the date of “anonymous’s” death. (Arguably, anonymous is immortal, but I digress…) The copyright term on anonymous or pseudonymous works is the lesser of 95 years from the date of first publication or 120 years from the date of creation. Authors can avoid this shortened term by revealing their true names to the copyright office during the registration process–but then the author’s legal name becomes part of the copyright record.

This doesn’t cover all of the legal issues relating to copyrights, so if you have additional questions, please feel free to ask in the comments!

If you have copyright issues, or other legal questions relating directly to your specific legal rights, consult an attorney without delay.

Disclaimer: this post is for informational purposes only, and does not represent legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship between the author and any person or entity.