How Do I Obtain a Copyright?

The three copyright questions we receive more than any others are: (1) how do I obtain a copyright? (2) how does copyright work? and (3) how do I get copyright permission?

How do I obtain a copyright?

The minute you create a creative work — whether it’s a book, illustration, poem, video, song, photograph, video game, software, or any other work that falls within the scope of copyright protection — your work is protected under U.S. copyright law. In fact, not only are you protected in the United States but you are also protected throughout the world.

You do not need to do anything else. Protection is automatic.

Don’t I have to put a copyright notice on the work?


Don’t I have to mail a copy of my creative work to myself?


Don’t I have to apply for a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office?


But my friend just spent years applying for a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And I have another friend who owns a business who spent months getting a trademark with that same Office. Is it really possible that you must apply to the government for a patent or trademark, but not a copyright?

Yes. If someone wants to obtain a patent or (in most cases) a trademark, they need to apply to the U.S Patent and Trademark Office. But that’s not true for copyrights.

Why is the process different for copyright than it is for patents and trademarks?

The United States belongs to an international treaty that prevents the U.S. from imposing formalities as an obstacle to copyright protection. Formalities, like copyright registration and copyright notice, are prohibited under this treaty as a gateway to protection. In anticipation of joining this treaty, Congress removed copyright registration as a requirement in the 70s and then when the U.S. eventually joined the treaty in the 80s copyright notice was also removed as a requirement.

So I create something and I’m protected and I don’t need to do anything else, right?


So, why would anyone take the time or spend the money to register their copyrighted works with the Copyright Office?

There are certain legal benefits to registering your creative work with the Copyright Office and, at $65, it’s not nearly as expensive as filing for a trademark or patent. Although registration of a copyrighted work is not necessary for the work to be protected, there are numerous benefits to registering.

The most significant benefits include:

  • If you’re a U.S. creator, you can’t sue someone for infringing your work unless your work is registered with the Copyright Office.
  • If you prevail in your copyright infringement suit, you can get either actual damages or statutory damages. Actual damages may be nominal and difficult to prove, so having the ability to claim statutory damages (which are predetermined within a range of $200 to $150,000 per infringed work) is important. But you can only get statutory damages if you have registered before the infringement took place (with limited exceptions).
  • Registration is considered notice to the world of your copyright claim and helps people who wish to license your work to find you.

For a complete list of the benefits and other information about registration, click here or check out our recent blogs on this topic.