A copyright determines who has the right to copy what you write.
Millions of words have been written on the subject, and I see no reason to add a million more. The quick explanation is that nobody has the right to copy your words without permission until 70 years after you die. If you copy this blog post 60 years after I die, without permission from me or my agent or estate, I can come back and sue you. You should be safe around 2102. Until then, these words are mine!
It is commonly believed that a creative work must be registered with the government to be protected by copyright. That’s not true. Your precious work is legally protected from copycats from the moment of creation without your having to fill out any forms or having to pay even one penny to the Feds. Your work is copyrighted even if you don’t put the © copyright symbol on it.
However, there are still advantages to going through a formal copyright registration, particularly if you end up suing for copyright infringement.
Copyright is a form of protection, grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software and architecture, fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.
Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a device. That means that what you put on a website or blog is copyrighted.
Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, discoveries, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way they are expressed.
Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one entity and distinguishing them from those of others. A book’s title can’t be copyrighted, but it can sometimes be protected as a trademark.
Copyright registration is voluntary. Many people choose to register their works because they want to have the facts of their copyright as a public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. If registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. Registration within 90 days gives you the most protection.
- The practice of mailing a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding this type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration. It probably won’t be useful in a lawsuit because it is so easily faked by mailing an empty envelope and inserting a document later.
The United States has copyright relations with most countries and most countries honor others’ citizens’ copyrights.
The U.S. Copyright Office changed its fees in 2009. Thanks to cost savings achieved through increased office automation, some fees remained the same or decreased. Other fees—mostly for services requiring manual labor—went up.
- The fee for filing a copyright application online, using the new electronic Copyright Office (eCO), is just $35. Self-publishing companies often charge much more to get a copyright. CrossBooks charges $204. Schiel & Denver charges $250!
More than 50 percent of copyright claims are now being submitted through eCO. The waiting time to receive certificates is much shorter for users of eCO than for those who submit paper applications.
In addition to a lower filing fee and the fastest processing time, advantages of electronic filing include the ability to track the status of claims online, to pay by credit or debit card, and to upload some creative works electronically.
Whether you register online or on paper, the Library of Congress still requires a real book to be sent in (except for e-books that don’t exist on paper).
You must send what the Library calls the “best edition” of your work. The “best edition” is determined based on expected durability, not luxury. For example, if you publish two hardbound versions of a book, one a trade edition printed on acid-free paper and the other a specially bound edition printed on average paper, the first will be the best edition because the type of paper is more important than the binding.
If you file your application online using eCO eService, you may pay by credit card. Credit cards are not accepted for registration through the mail, but may be used for registrations that are filed in person in the Copyright Office in Washington.
If you register within five years of publication, and have to sue someone for copyright violation, a court should recognize the validity of the copyright and the facts on the certificate. If you register within three months of publication, you can sue for statutory damages and attorney's fee. Later registration may limit your payment to the actual loss—which could be three dollars.
You may register unpublished works as a collection on one application, with one title for the entire collection. It is not necessary to list the individual titles in your collection. Published works may be registered as a collection only if they were actually first published as a collection.
There is no legal requirement that the author be identified by his or her real name on the application form. If filing under a pen name, check the “Pseudonymous” box when giving information about the author.
When you register your claim to copyright a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, you are making a public record. All the information you provide on your copyright registration is available to the public and will be on the Internet.
The length of time the Copyright Office requires to process an application varies depending on the number of applications the Office is handling at the time of submission and any questions associated with the application. Ninety percent of online filers should receive a certificate of registration within six months of submission. A third should receive a certificate within ten weeks of submission.
Regardless of the time needed to issue a certificate, the effective date of registration is the day the Copyright Office receives a complete submission in acceptable form. You do not need to wait for a certificate to publish your book.
By custom (not by law), if you publish a book during the last three or four months of the year, you can use a copyright date of the next year. This makes the book seem to be a year fresher as it ages. However, DON’T register it until the year printed in the book.
You may make a new copyright registration for a book if you make “substantial and creative” changes. Simply making spelling corrections throughout a book would not warrant a new registration, but adding another chapter would.
Originally, if you wanted to copyright a book that existed only in electronic form, you had to print out the text and submit the printed material to Washington. Now the Copyright Office can accept uploaded Word documents or PDFs (but not "retail" fomats like EPUB). A copyright protects content, regardless of its format.
NOTE: I AM NOT AN ATTORNEY. THIS SUMMARY IS BELIEVED TO BE ACCURATE, BUT BEFORE YOU DO ANYTHING BASED ON WHAT YOU READ HERE, YOU CAN ASK A QUALIFIED ATTORNEY OR THE COPYRIGHT OFFICE.