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Registering a Copyright in the United States

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

When it comes to intellectual property law, there are some things that are just too complicated to do yourself (anyone who’s been involved in writing claims for a software patent or license knows what I mean). You may be surprised to hear, however, that registering a copyright is one of the few things that the average Joe (or Jill) can do without a team of lawyers to back him or her up. In this article, I will explain some of the basics of what a copyright is, why you should register one, and how easy it is to do it.

What is a copyright and how do I get one?

Chances are, if you can write, type, paint, sketch, take pictures with a camera, or operate a video/audio recorder, you probably own a copyright. In fact, there are only two major requirements to owning a copyright on a specific work*:

  1. It must be an original work (i.e. you didn’t copy someone else).
  2. The work must be “fixed in a tangible medium.” Basically, the moment you write the work down on paper, save it in a computer, paint it on a canvas, take a picture, post it online, etc., you’ve met this requirement.

If you’ve met these two requirements, then you automatically receive a copyright for that work. No boxtops need to be mailed in. No proof of purchase needed. Congrats, you are a copyright owner!

So if I already have a copyright, why should I register one?

At this point, you’ve probably realized that you own more copyrights than you ever imagined and are wondering what they’re good for. Basically a copyright gives you, the original creator of a work, the legal right to copy, distribute, and adapt that work. If someone tries to infringe upon your copyright, you also have the legal right to seek compensation for any damages incurred. You receive these rights automatically, and they are considered legal and binding whether or not you choose to register your copyright.
So if you receive these rights automatically upon qualifying for a copyright, why should you bother registering it? Well, in addition to these basic rights granted to copyright owners, registering comes with a few added benefits:

  1. Registering establishes a definitive date that can be used to prove a material as originally being yours.
  2. If a copyright is registered BEFORE an infringement, it entitles you to statutory damages and attorney’s fees if you win in court (without a prior registration, you are due only actual damages incurred). Also, you cannot file an infringement suit until you register your copyright.
  3. A copy of your work is stored in the Library of Congress. This means that even if your original work was somehow destroyed or lost, you can be sure that it isn’t lost from the world.

It is important to also note, that registering a copyright is a fairly easy and inexpensive process. Currently, it costs $35 to register your copyright electronically, $50 if you choose to register using the Fill-In Form CO, and $65 if you decide to use the old-fashioned paper forms. This means that the average person can receive a great deal of added protection for a very reasonable amount of money.

OK, you’ve convinced me, but how do I register my copyright?

There are three basic steps to registering a copyright:

  1. Complete the application
  2. Pay the filing fee**
  3. Submit a copy of your work

Unless you are terrified of technology (and I highly doubt you would be reading this blog post if you were) I highly recommend registering your copyright online through the U.S. Copyright Office’s website (http://www.copyright.gov).*** There are several advantages to filing electronically:

  • Filing online is cheaper.
  • Your application is processed faster than if you file using paper forms.
  • In many cases, you can submit a digital copy of your work to the Library of Congress instead of mailing a physical copy.**** This will save you time, postage, and the cost of printing an extra copy of your work.
  • After submitting your claim, you can check on its status by loging into eCo and clicking on the blue case number associated with your claim in the “Open Cases” table.

In order to file electronically, you will need an email address. Your email will not be made available to the public record. If you don’t have an email address, you can get one from one of several online email services for free:

Once you have an email address, simply go to http://www.copyright.gov/eco/ and click on “Electronic Copyright Office” next to “Login to eCO.” Then just fill in the information requested. Upon filling out the form, you will then be asked to pay the $35 registration fee and submit a copy of your work (you will be given the option of either printing out an address label for mailing in your work, or to submit a copy of your work electronically). Once those three steps are complete, the U.S. Copyright Office will process your application, and upon determining that you’ve met the aforementioned requirements for owning a copyright, will approve your registration.

Notes:

* It is important to note that the word “work” is used here, because things like processes and methodologies cannot be copyrighted (stuff like that is covered under different types of Intellectual Property Law.
** Filing fees are paid online through a government website called Pay.gov (http://www.pay.gov).
*** While most modern web browsers can be used to file electronically, currently Safari and Chrome are not certified as being compatible with the online registration application. Sorry Mac users, but let’s face it, you should be using a better web browser than Safari anyway.
****A list of supported file types for uploading your work can be found at http://www.copyright.gov/eco/help-file-types.html.

Additional Information:

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