If you’ve been reading my column here on the Blog Herald, then you already know that copyright is placed into a work the moment that it is created. This means that you don’t need to do anything at all in order to ensure that your work is protected and that others who misuse it are breaking the law.
But while that’s definitely true, it’s also not quite the full story. In the U.S., though copyright is granted in a work the moment its fixed into a tangible medium of expression, one does not have all of the tools needed to enforce that copyright until they take an additional step.
That additional step is timely registration with the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) and for many bloggers, both in the U.S. and abroad, it’s a both a good idea and an important step you can take to protect your work.
If you’re wondering why you should register, there are actually many but here are six of the big reasons to get you started (PDF).
1. The Ability to File a Lawsuit
There’s something of an odd catch-22 in U.S. copyright law that says, while your work is protected under copyright from the moment of creation, if you actually want to sue someone and enforce that right you first have to register your work with the USCO.
The reason for this is actually one of jurisdiction. In the U.S., only Federal courts can hear copyright cases and Federal courts only have jurisdiction over copyright matters if there is a registration on file.
Is it convoluted and somewhat unfair? Yes. But it’s the law as it is written right now.
2. The Chance to Collect Full Damages
Copyright law, in the U.S., offers two kinds of damages that one can collect: Actual and statutory.
Actual damages are the greater of what the infringer gained or the infringed lost. Statutory damages range between $750 and $150,000 per infringement and are regardless of the money earned or lost in the infringing act (though those factors are weighed in determining the damages).
However, in order to obtain statutory damages you need to either register your work before the infringement takes place or within 3 months of publication.
Obviously, with a timely copyright registration, the same infringement can mean a lot more in damages.
3. The Ability to Collect Attorney’s Fees
The same as timely registration helps you collect full damages on an infringement, it also lets you collect attorney’s fees on an infringement as well.
While this might not seem like a big deal, it’s important to note that, copyright, as a Federal issue, is expensive to litigate and most attorneys won’t even look at a copyright case unless there is some assurance they can collect their fees. This means either a very large retainer or, ideally, a timely registration and a good chance at success.
In many copyright cases, attorney’s fees actually make up a large portion of the award so having this available to you not only means you’ll more likely find someone to take your case, but it can save you many thousands of dollars in costs.
4. Prima Facie Evidence of Authorship
If someone takes your creation and claims it as their own, it can be difficult to prove who owned the work and when. However, a timely copyright registration provides what is known as “prima facie” evidence of authorship.
What this means is that the burden of proof is on the other party to prove that the registration is wrong, not on you to prove that it is correct. This can be very powerful as proving you own something you created is difficult enough but proving you created something you didn’t is nearly impossible.
In short, it makes proving your case much, much easier and lets you skip several steps in staking your claim should things head to court.
5. Public Record of Claim and Authorship
All copyright registrations are stored in a public database that allows others to look up information about the work. This way, if anyone has any questions about who created a work, who the copyright holder is and where to get permission to use the work, the information is readily available.
This can be very useful down the road if others want to use your work but your site is no longer operational. This is especially important with the orphan works issue that is being so hotly debated in the U.S. and EU, as it will, most likely, prevent your work from becoming an orphan and available for use should such legislation pass.
6. A Big Stick to Wield
Finally, even if you don’t ever plan on suing for copyright infringement, a timely copyright registration gives you a lot of weight to throw around in a copyright dispute.
If someone does take your work and you want them to stop, you can easily point to your registration filing and your offer your registration number to let them know that A) You take your copyright very seriously and B) You have the ability to sue them for a large amount of money.
Infringers are simply more cooperative when they are staring at a serious legal threat than one they know to be idle, making them much more cooperative. The same can be said for hosts and for others who you may have to turn to for help in enforcing your copyright.
For most bloggers, registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office makes a lot of sense. It only costs $35 per registration and only needs to be done once every 3 months. That means $140 per year buys you a great deal of peace of mind when it comes to your work being protected.
Even if you’re not in the U.S., it probably is not a bad idea. Not only does a U.S. registration provide solid proof in other countries, especially most other countries don’t have a formal registration system, but you also can’t predict where your work will be infringed. Though you can sue in the U.S. without a registration if you are from outside the country, you still can’t collect full damages and you miss out on many other benefits as well.
As such, a USCO registration is a sensible act for just about everyone, regardless of where they are and how their content is being used.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for The Blog Herald. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.