How to Register a Copyright in the U.S.

In order to actually enforce a copyright, it is important to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

If you have written a play, illustrated an image, or composed a song, you probably feel a strong sense of ownership over that work. You would not want a third party to misappropriate or claim credit for it. Copyright law offers a solution. But how can you secure your copyright protection?

Benefits of Registering Your Copyright

The way in which copyright protection is secured is frequently misunderstood.

Under the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright is secured automatically when the work is created. A work is "created" when it is "fixed" into a book, tape, or electronic medium for the first time.

Thus, for example, a song can be fixed in sheet music or in a digital tape, or both. (Importantly, copyright does not protect mere ideas or concepts, hence the requirement that it be "fixed").

Beyond the requirement that the work be in a tangible medium, no publication, registration or other action with the government is required to secure copyright.

However, this is where the confusion often begins for prospective registrants: In order to actually enforce your copyright and for many other practical reasons, it is necessary to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office, the federal agency charged with overseeing copyright applications and administration.

Some of the advantages of registering a copyright include:

  • Registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim. In other words, it "proves" the date on which you actually created your work. Without a registration, it would be fairly difficult to prove the date on which you painted a painting, wrote a poem, or recorded a video, for example.
  • Before an infringement suit can be filed in federal court, registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is required. Put differently, you cannot actually sue for copyright infringement without registration, even if (as a technical legal matter) you still have a copyright in your unregistered work.
  • If made before or within five years of publication, registration establishes sufficient evidence in court concerning the validity of the copyright and the facts stated in the copyright certificate.
  • If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney's fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.
  • Registration allows the owner of the copyright to record the registration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for protection against the importation of infringing copies.

Steps to Registering a Copyright

How do you go about registering your copyright? The process is actually fairly self explanatory, and can be completed through the Copyright Office's website, which has a portal dedicated to online registration.

You will notice that there are different instructions to follow depending on the type of work you seek to register (such as visual, musical, or electronic work). As part of the application process, you will be required to upload or mail a copy of the work in question, and provide additional information about yourself and the work.

You will also be required to pay certain fees upon registration. While these fees vary depending on the nature of the copyright, they will typically be less than $100.

In most situations, you will probably not need an attorney to complete the online registration process. However, if your situation is more complicatedfor example, if the creative work in question has multiple creators, or if there is a dispute about ownership—you might wish to speak with an attorney with experience in intellectual property law prior to beginning the registration process.

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