Although you do not need to use a copyright notice or register your work in order to hold a copyright in the work, notice and registration give you a number of benefits, which we discuss below. (For more information on the basic requirements of copyright ownership, see the section on Copyright Ownership in this guide.)
By putting a copyright notice on your work, you inform the public that your work is protected by copyright. Notice allows someone to contact you for permission to use your work. Notice also limits the ability of someone who infringes your work to claim they didn't know of the copyright's existence.
A copyright notice of must be affixed (or must exist in a place) so that it “give[s] reasonable notice of the claim of copyright.” A notice of copyright typically includes the copyright symbol, ©, the year of first publication, and the name of the owner of the copyright. For example, © 2008 Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
The copyright symbol may be replaced by the word “Copyright” or the abbreviation “Copr.” For example, Copyright 2008 Citizen Media Law Project and respective authors.
You do not need to register your work before putting notice on it. Note that if your work is a sound recording embodied in "phonorecords", you will need to complete a separate form for copyright notice.
Copyright registration is not a prerequisite to copyright protection. However, registering a copyright in your work with the U.S. Copyright Office provides the following advantages:
- A public record of your copyright claim in your work: A public record serves as an even stronger notice of your ownership claim; notice is provided to the entire world and is not limited to those who see your work with the copyright notice attached.
- The ability to file suit to enforce copyright in federal court: You must file an application for registration and have it either granted or refused before you can sue, even if the infringement has already occurred.
- Evidence that your copyright is valid: Filing your registration within 5 years of publishing your work will help you in the event that you need to bring a copyright infringement lawsuit in court. Your registration will provide prima facie evidence (i.e. satisfy a basic level of proof) of the validity of your copyright. This does not mean that your claim of copyright ownership is guaranteed. However, instead of having to prove that you are the actual copyright owner, the other party will have to prove that you are not. While this may seem like a semantic distinction, you are in a stronger position given that the presumption of copyright ownership is on your side.
- Statutory damages and attorney's fees: If you file your registration of copyright within 3 months of publishing your work, or at any time prior to an infringement, your registration allows you to recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees. The statutory recovery provision may be of help because copyright owners often find it difficult to calculate and prove exactly how an infringement has hurt them. When applicable, statutory damages for infringing uses of a work usually entitle you to a pre-determined amount of damages (ranging from $750 to $30,000 per work infringed). 17 U.S.C. § 504(c).
For more on why you might want to register your works, please see Sarah Bird's excellent post, Why You Should Go Through the Trouble of Registering Your Copyright When Everyone Tells You That Your Work Is Protected Automatically.
Bear in mind that when you register a work, the Copyright Office does not validate the accuracy of your copyright claim. Also, registration (and copyright law in general) does not protect against similar, independently created works. A person can create a work that is substantially similar to yours without legal ramifications, so long as that person created the work without any reliance on your work (i.e., never read, saw, heard about it, etc.).Registering Online Works
Online works (including web pages) provide a unique challenge for those wishing to register their work. Online works are typically updated frequently, with content changing regularly. Unfortunately, under copyright law, each substantially updated version (or, in legal terminology, derivative work) must be registered separately. For more details on the registration of online works, see the U.S. Copyright Office's Circular #66: Copyright Registration for Online Works.
The U.S. Copyright office does, in some instances, provide the ability to register copyrights in a group (i.e., a single registration covering multiple versions). Specifically, you can register an automated database, a serial (published weekly or less often), and a newsletter (published more often than weekly) to get protection for multiple versions. Some web sites have registered under these classifications, but it remains to be seen if/how the contents will be protected. For more details on these alternative types of registration, see the U.S. Copyright Office's Circular #62: Copyright Registration for Serials and Circular #62a: Group Registration of Newspapers and Newsletters on Form G/DN.How to Register
The process of registering a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office is relatively straightforward. Sarah Bird at Seomoz.org has a fantastic resource on Sample Forms and Strategies for Registering your Online Content.
There are four basic steps to the registration process:1. Determine which form to use and fill it out
- For written works (which also includes computer programs and online works), use Form TX (for a version of the form with detailed instructions click here).
- For pictorial or photographic works, use Form VA (version with instructions here).
- For other types of works, see the U.S. Copyright Form Page to determine which form is required.
Note: For compilations, use the form that best fits the majority of the work.
2: Determine how many copies are needed
- Written works:
- For unpublished works, provide 1 copy.
- For published works, provide 2 copies.
- For online works, either provide a labeled computer disk containing the work or a printed version of the work.
- For more specific details about these and other written works, see the "deposit requirements" link located at the U.S. Copyright Office's Literary Works page.
- Pictorial or photographic works:
- For pictorial or graphic works, provide 2 copies.
- For photographic works, provide 2 copies (1 if the work is unpublished).
- For more specific details about these and other visual art works, see the "deposit requirements" link located at the U.S. Copyright Office's Visual Works page.
As part of the Copyright Office's new "Electronic Copyright Office" ("eCO") system, certain works can now be uploaded instead of physically mailed when registered online. For more on this process, visit the eCO page.
Note: copies are non-returnable.
3. Pay the fee
- The current cost for registering a copyright is $35 for electronic filing and $45 for paper filing.
- Checks should be made payable to "Register of Copyrights."
4. Mail the package
The mailing address is:
Library of Congress Copyright Office
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20559-6000
Best Practices for Protecting Your Work
- Use a copyright notice with your work. This takes little effort and can provide significant benefits to you.
- Consider registering your online work within three months of publication. The benefit of getting statutory damages if you sue someone successfully for copyright infringement may outweigh the costs of registration.
- Look into alternative forms of registration. If your work could be categorized as a "serial," "newsletter," or "automated database," you may be able to get protection for multiple versions without the cost and effort involved in registering each individual iteration.