The 5 W’s of Copyright Registration

“Yes, hello, I am interested in copyrighting my work. Can you help me?”

This is a question we hear all the time at the Copyright Alliance. For many creators, applying to register for a copyright can be a confusing and daunting task. You put a lot of time, energy, creativity, and investment into your creation, and now you want to protect it with copyright. But where do you start? Well, we’re here to point you in the right direction with the “5 W’s: the who, what, when, where, and why of registering for a copyright.”

Who: Who grants you a copyright registration?

Copyright protection is automatic from the moment a work is created, however the only place that can officially grant you a copyright registration is the U.S. Copyright Office. There are many sites that might try to convince you that they can grant you a copyright registration. Some might even offer you a low price or a deal. But be cautious when using a third-party service and ensure that they are registering your work through the U.S. Copyright Office.

Here at the Copyright Alliance, our goal is to help educate you on copyright law so that you know your rights and can protect yourself from infringement, as well as know how to avoid infringing the work of others. Unfortunately, at this time, we don’t offer registration services and refer creators to the U.S. Copyright Office.

If you experience challenges with your application, please contact the Office’s Public Information Office at: (202) 707-3000 or through the Contact Us form on the website, providing a brief description of the problem and your contact information, requesting that your problem be forwarded to the Office of Registration Policy and Practice.

What: What is the copyright registration process?

To register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, one must submit three things: (i) a registration application; (ii) a deposit copy or copies of the work, and (iii) the application fee.

Application Form: There are different application forms for different types of copyrighted works and for different types of registrations. Registration usually covers copyrighting a single work. However, for certain types of works, a group registration is possible. All forms must be completed and signed when submitted to the Office. The application can be submitted electronically or (for most works) in paper form. For most works, it’s more beneficial to use the online registration system, called the electronic Copyright Office (eCO), because the:

• filing fee is lower than for paper filing;
• processing time is faster;
• status of the application can be tracked online;
• payment can be secured by either credit/debit card, electronic check, or through a Copyright Office deposit account; and
• applicants can upload certain categories of deposits directly into eCO as electronic files instead of mailing them to the Office.

Filing Fee: A non-refundable filing fee must be included with the application. The amount of the filing fee differs depending on several factors (e.g., online or paper filing, single registration or group filing). The fees generally range from $25 to $140, with most fees being below $100. A listing of the most up-to-date fees can be found here.

Deposit Copy: A deposit is a copy of the work being registered and “deposited” with the Copyright Office. All deposit copies are retained by the Office or the Library of Congress and not returned to the copyright owner. The deposit requirements vary depending on the type of work being registered. Copyright owners can find more information about the type of deposit they will need to submit in one of the circulars published by the Copyright Office.

When: When should I register the copyright in my work?

In general, the Copyright Office recommends you register your work as soon as possible. Often, when and how a copyright owner registers a work depends on whether that work is published or unpublished (because the requirements for registration differ slightly depending on whether the work is considered to be published or unpublished under the law). The “under the law” phrase is important here because what you might consider to be published does not necessarily correspond to the Copyright Office’s definition of the term. Moreover, sometimes even knowing these definitions won’t help because there is some ambiguity in the term and how it applies to new digital environments. So, this is one area to approach carefully.
The Copyright Office’s definition of published includes: the distribution of copies of a work to “the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending,” or offering to distribute copies … “to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes publication.” A public performance or display of a work does not by itself constitute publication. In the online environment, this info can become confusing.

Where: Where do I go to find copyright registration forms?

The copyright registration forms can be found here. You will need to choose the category that applies to your form of work. Creators may want to complete the registration application themselves, as the registration form is not particularly long or difficult and the Office has clear online instructions. After going through the registration process once or twice, it becomes much easier and faster to register any subsequent works. The Office also provides a tutorial, which can be found here. And you can find basic information about registration here.

Why: Why should I register my work, isn’t copyright automatic?

Although registration of a copyrighted work is not necessary for the work to be protected, there are numerous benefits to registering. These benefits include:

Bringing an Infringement Action: Registration is a necessary prerequisite for U.S. copyright owners to bring a copyright infringement suit in federal court. (Foreign copyright owners need not register their U.S. copyrights before filing suit).

Evidence of Validity: If a registration application is submitted to the Copyright Office within five years after first publication of the work, the certificate of registration issued by the Office will constitute prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the registration certificate. This could be important if a copyright infringement case is brought involving the work.

Statutory Damages and Attorneys’ Fees: To be eligible for an award of statutory damages and attorneys’ fees in a copyright infringement case, the copyrighted work must be registered before infringement commences, with limited exceptions. Actual damages in an infringement suit may be either nominal or difficult to prove, so having the ability to claim statutory damages in extremely significant and may even determine whether it makes sense to sue in the first place.

Satisfies Deposit Requirements: Irrespective of copyright protection and subject to some exceptions, the Copyright Act requires that copyright owners deposit two copies their works with the Library of Congress within three months after the works have been published. This is commonly referred to as mandatory deposit. (The penalty for not doing this is a fine that can only be imposed after the Copyright Office makes a formal demand for the copies on behalf of the Library). When a registration application is submitted to the Copyright Office, the copies of works submitted with that application usually satisfy the Library’s independent deposit requirements.

Creates a Public Record: Registration is considered notice to the world of your copyright claim. Among other things, this helps people who wish to license your work to ascertain the status of your work and to find you.

For more information on Copyright registration, please visit our FAQ’s here.

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