Many people misunderstand the nature of securing copyright protection. Copyright in an original work of authorship, and all the associated rights and protections, typically accrue to the author who created the work as soon as the author fixes the work in a tangible medium of expression for the first time. Ownership is automatic and does not require registration, giving notice, or even publication. However, registering a copyright is recommended and can be a good idea from a practical standpoint for purposes of having a public record of when the work was definitely fixed in a tangible medium.
If you want to sue for copyright infringement to enforce any of the rights that copyright law gives authors, it is necessary to register the copyright with the United States Copyright Office. When copyright registration happens within five years of publication, it is prima facie evidence of copyright ownership in court. Some common legal defenses to a copyright infringement suit include that the infringer had no reason to know the work was protected by copyright or that the infringing work was independently created, rather than copied. When a copyright is timely registered, these defenses are less likely to be successful.
Works of authorship had to contain a valid copyright notice until 1989, but this is no longer required to enforce exclusive rights under copyright law. It can still be important to include a valid copyright notice because a notice stops an infringer from defending a lawsuit on the grounds he or she did not know of the copyright, and it can discourage potential infringers. Notice also gives interested members of the public a way to track down the owner of the work in order to obtain a license or other permission to use the work.
How to Register a Copyright
Registering a copyright with the Copyright Office is straightforward. You will need to fill out a form for the specific type of work it is and deposit samples of the work with the Copyright Office. There are different forms required for different mediums. Works that may be copyrighted include literature, music, scripts, choreographed works, pictures or sculptures, audiovisual and sound works, and architectural plans. It costs $45 to register a copyright, and sometimes multiple works can be registered together in a group registration.
Registering a copyright within three months of a work’s publication is particularly beneficial, but you can register at any point before bringing a lawsuit. Registration within three months or before infringement creates the presumption that your copyright is valid. You can recover up to $150,000 in statutory damages plus attorneys’ fees without having to prove your actual damages. Otherwise, you will only be able to receive an award of your actual damages and profits from a successful lawsuit.
How to Obtain Copyright Protection in Other Countries
With the rise of the Internet, which allows work to be easily disseminated globally, many authors may be wondering how to protect their copyright in foreign countries. Two treaties cover foreign copyright protection: the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the Berne Convention. More than 100 industrialized countries, including the United States, have signed the Berne Convention, an international copyright treaty.
Under the Berne Convention, members must give copyright protection to authors who are nationals of a member country. Protection under the Convention is automatic, just as it is in the United States, and the author need not take legal steps to preserve copyright. Like the Berne Convention, GATT includes several provisions that affect copyright protection.