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Copyright Law Explained

Copyright Published vs. Unpublished Work

Often when and how a copyright owner registers a copyrighted work will depend on whether that work is published or unpublished. The registration requirements for which a copyright is published vs unpublished differs under the law. The “under the law” phrase is important here because what the normal person might consider to be published does not necessarily correspond to the Copyright Office’s definition of the term. Moreover, sometimes even knowing these definitions doesn’t help because there is some ambiguity in the term and how it applies to new digital environments. So, this is one area to proceed with caution.

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.

Online Work: Published vs. Unpublished

In the online environment this gets confusing. For example, a blog post or a photo posted on a website might be considered to be a “distribution of copies,” which would mean it’s a published work under the definition or it could be a “public display,” which would mean it’s unpublished.

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