By Kathryn Page Camp
Obtaining a copyright is as easy as getting the material out of your head and putting it down on paper or a computer drive. The minute you put it in tangible form, it is copyrighted.
“Wait,” you say, “don’t I have to register it with the government?”
No. You can, but you don’t have to.
There is a $35 registration fee for most textual works registered online, and the fee is higher if you do it the old-fashioned way. If you register multiple manuscripts, both the time and the money can add up.
Most copyright violators are unintentional infringers who simply don’t realize that the work is copyrighted. The easiest way to solve that problem is free: just add a copyright notice. You don’t have to register the material or even publish it to do that.
So why would anyone register a copyright?
First, registration provides a record that you created the material, which tends to discourage intentional infringers. Second, you can’t sue for copyright infringement until you have registered your copyright. And if you register it before the infringement occurs or no later than three months after publication, you can get statutory damages. That means the court can award you money even if you can’t prove that you lost any.
If you sign a book contract, check to see who is responsible for registering the copyright. If you publish an article in a print magazine or an e-zine, the magazine’s registration will not cover your article if you retain the copyright.
I can’t tell you when to register a copyright. That’s a personal decision. But here are the guidelines I use.
1. Unpublished manuscripts. Contrary to what many people believe, it is almost unheard of for publishers and agents to steal material. Besides, you can’t copyright ideas and the elements that flow naturally from those ideas, so registration does not protect you if a publisher thinks you have a great idea but asks someone else to write it. I have never registered my unpublished material.
2. Short published items, such as blog posts. I weigh the time and expense against the harm—emotional as well as economic—if someone steals the material. I also consider whether a copyright notice is sufficient. A magazine article that I intend to resell numerous times is worth registering. A blog post that I am unlikely to reuse isn’t.
3. Longer published items, such as books. For longer material that could reach a sizeable audience, registration becomes more time- and cost-effective. Although the law does not require registration, it does require copies of each hardcopy book (including books published only in paperback) to be deposited with the Library of Congress, and registration serves both functions. In my opinion, all published books (e-books or hardcopy) should be registered.
For more information on copyright registration, go to www.copyright.gov and download the publication called “Copyright Basics,” which can be found under the Publications/Circulars tab. One warning, however. The Copyright Office’s publications stay close to the statutory language, so they do not directly address blogs and other formats that did not exist when the laws were written.
* This is an updated reprint of a guest post I originally wrote for the “Story and Logic” blog. It was first published in 2013.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at www.kathrynpagecamp.com.