In the United States, as in most countries, it is possible to own a copyright without registering it. Copyright registration is not a prerequisite to copyright protection. Rather, a copyright comes into being when a human being fixes original, creative expression in a tangible medium (or when it is fixed in a tangible medium at a human being’s direction.) Nevertheless, there are important reasons why you should register a copyright in a work you’ve created, particularly if you live in the United States.
Reasons for registering copyrights
If you live in the United States, the most important reason for registering a copyright is that you will not be able to enforce it unless you do. As a condition of filing an infringement claim in court, the United States Copyright Act requires a copyright owner to have applied for registration and received either a certificate of registration or a denial of registration from the U.S. Copyright Office. Registration is not a prerequisite to serving a cease-and-desist letter or a DMCA take-down notice. If you want to enforce your copyright in court, though, then you will need to register it.
This is true, as well, of infringement claims filed in the new Copyright Claims Board (sometimes called the “copyright small claims court” or “CCB”). It is not necessary to have received either a registration certificate or denial letter from the Copyright Office before filing a claim with the CCB. It is necessary, however, to have at least applied for registration before filing a claim.
Prompt registration is also important. You may not be able to recover statutory damages and attorney fees in an action for copyright infringement unless you registered the copyright either within three months after first publication or before the infringement began.
Registration gives you the benefit of a legal presumption that the copyright is valid. It also gives rise to a presumption of ownership, and that all of the other facts stated in the certificate (date of creation, etc.) are true.
Registration is not only critical to enforcement; it is also an important defensive strategy. If someone else registers the work and you do not, then they get all of the benefits described above and you do not. As the original creator of a work, you do not want to find yourself in the position of being sued for “infringing” your own work.
Registration workarounds that aren’t
The “poor man’s copyright”
One dangerous myth that has been circulating for years is that simply mailing yourself a copy of your work will be enough to establish your rights in it. This is not true. Anybody can make a copy of someone else’s work and mail it to himself or herself. Even if doing that could establish a person’s rights in a work, it is still going to be necessary to register the copyright in the work in order to enforce it in the U.S. legal system. And you won’t get any of the other benefits of registration, either, unless you do.
Posting to YouTube or another Internet website
Posting a copy of a work to YouTube or another Internet website is a modern-day version of the “poor man’s copyright” myth. The best this will do, however, is provide a date and time of posting. That proves nothing about authorship, and it does not provide any of the benefits of registration.
Notarization only verifies the validity of a signature; it does not prove anything about authorship.
Having an agent, distributor or licensing agency
Having an agent or a distributor, or listing with ASCAP, for example, does not prove authorship, nor does it provide any of the benefits of registration.
Registries and databases
Some websites offer to list your work in a “registry” or other database, supposedly as a means of protecting your copyright in the work. Some of these websites border on fraud. “Registering” your work with a private company or service will not prove authorship and will not give you any of the other benefits of registration. In the United States, the benefits of registration flow only to those who register the copyrights in their works with the United States Copyright Office.
True copyright registration services
Not all online copyright registration services are scams. Some of them will actually get a customer’s copyright registered with the United States Copyright Office. It is still necessary to proceed with caution when using them, however. Here are some things to watch out for.
Per-work vs. per-application
Pay careful attention to whether service fees are charged “per work,” on one hand, or “per application,” on the other.
If you have more than one work to register, it may sometimes be possible to register them with the Copyright Office as a group rather than individually. For example, a group of up to ten unpublished works by the same author may be registered with the Office using one application and paying one filing fee. Similarly, up to 750 photographs can sometimes be registered together as a group using only one application and paying only one filing fee.
An online service that offers to register copyrights at the rate of $100 “per work” might not inform users about the Copyright Office’s group registration options. Imagine paying $75,000 plus $33,750 filing fees to register copyrights in 750 photographs when you might have done it yourself, using one application, for a $55 filing fee.
Single, standard or group application
Once you’ve selected a service whose rates are “per application” rather than “per work,” you will want to ensure that the service includes group registration options. If a service indicates that it will prepare a “single” or “standard” application, then this may mean that it will not prepare applications for group registrations. Find that out before proceeding.
GRAM and GRUW applications
If you are a musician or composer, you may be able to qualify for a significant discount on Copyright Office filing fees by filing a GRAM or GRUW application. These are special application forms that allow the registration of up to 10 unpublished songs, or up to 20 published songs on an album, using one application and paying one filing fee. They are relatively new additions to the Copyright Office’s application forms repertoire. Some registration services will not, or do not yet, work with them.
First, understand the difference between a service fee and the Copyright Office filing fee. The Copyright Office filing fee is usually going to be between $45 and $85, depending on the kind of application. When a website quotes a fee for the service it provides, the fee it quotes normally does not include the Copyright Office filing fee — unless, of course, the website expressly says so.
Online registration service companies charge different rates for their services. One attorney website I saw quoted a $500 flat fee “per work.” Apparently, he would intend to charge $5,000 to register a group of 10 works.
Other services quote a much lower fee, typically somewhere between $100 and $250, either per work or per application.
These services typically are limited to filing a registration application, and nothing more. Some of them stand behind their work. Others charge additional fees if an application is rejected and they need to do additional work to fix the problem.
A new online copyright service entered the scene last year. Called RightsClick™ it boasts processing fees that are 85% lower than most other registration services. Rather than charging $100 to $500 plus the Copyright Office filing fee, RightsClick charges $15 plus the Copyright Office filing fee.
It is also one of the few services that processes applications for group registration, and is up-front and clear about the cost. A group of up to 10 unpublished works, for example, can be registered for $15, that is to say, the same low processing fee that is charged for a single application.
There are monthly subscription charges, but even adding these into the mix does not bring the cost up to anything near to what many online services are charging.
The services provided include more than copyright registration, and additional features are planned for the future.
Because I believe this innovative new service can be a great time and money saver for attorneys who work with authors and other copyright owners, I am hosting a continuing legal education (CLE) course through EchionCLE. It will be presented by Steven Tepp and David Newhoff, the developers of RightsClick. It will include an update on registration law and a demonstration of what RightsClick can do and how it works.
This program is FREE and is open to both attorneys and non-attorneys.
EchionCLE has applied to the Minnesota Board of Continuing Legal Education for 1.0 Standard CLE credit.
The live webinar will be held on May 17, 2023.
There will be a video replay on June 1, 2023.
For more detailed information, or to register, click here.
I do not own or have any interest in RightsClick. I have not been paid and have not received anything of value in connection with this post. This post is not an endorsement or advertisement for RightsClick or the services it offers. It is simply an announcement of what appears to me to be a service that could be of considerable benefit to authors, creators, publishers and attorneys.