How to get maximum protection from the federal copyright laws.
Why should I register my work with the U.S. Copyright Office?
You must register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before you are legally permitted to bring a lawsuit to enforce it.
You can register a copyright at any time, but filing promptly may pay off in the long run. "Timely registration" -- that is, registration within three months of the work's publication date or before any copyright infringement actually begins -- makes it much easier to sue and recover money from an infringer. Specifically, timely registration creates a legal presumption that your copyright is valid, and allows you to recover up to $150,000 (and possibly lawyer's fees) without having to prove any actual monetary harm.
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How do I register a copyright?
You can register your copyright by filing a simple application and depositing one or two samples of the work (depending on what it is) with the U.S. Copyright Office.
There are two ways to file a copyright application:
- file online (using the Copyright Office’s electronic eCO system), or
- file a traditional printed copyright form (Forms PA, TX, VA, SR, etc.), each of which is specific to the type of work (for example, Form TX is only for text works). Note, the all-purpose Form CO was discontinued as of July 2012. If you submit a Form CO after July, 2012, you will have 30 days to correct the submission.
Which is right for you?
- If you’re comfortable with electronic filing—that is, preparing and filling out forms online—the eCO system is less expensive ($35 instead of $65 for Forms VA, TX, PA and SR) than using paper forms, and will likely result in faster turnaround.
- If you are used to the traditional application or feel more comfortable using a form that is specific to your type of work, use the familiar forms (Forms VA, TX, PA, SE, or SR) and pay a higher fee ($65 per application).
The eCo system and the paper forms can be found at www.copyright.gov. Note, the fees change periodically. Check with the Copyright Office for current fees.
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What is PreRegistration?
As a result of legislation in 2005, the Copyright Office has instituted a preregistration procedure for certain classes of works that have a history of pre-release infringement. According to the Copyright Office, preregistration serves as a place-holder for limited purposes, mainly where a copyright owner needs to sue for infringement while a work is still being prepared for commercial release. Preregistration is not a substitute for registration, and its use is only appropriate in certain circumstances. A work submitted for preregistration must meet three conditions: (1) the work must be unpublished; (2) the work must be in the process of being prepared for commercial distribution in either physical or digital format—that is, film copies, CDs, computer programs to be sold online—and the applicant must have a reasonable expectation of this commercial distribution, and (3) the work must fall within the following classes of works determined by the Register of Copyrights to have had a history of infringement prior to authorized commercial distribution. The works determined to be eligible under this requirement are: motion pictures, sound recordings, musical compositions, literary works being prepared for publication in book form, computer programs (which may include videogames), advertising or marketing photographs. Preregistration is not a form of registration but is simply an indication of an intent to register a work once the work has been completed and/or published. When the work has been completed, it may be registered as an unpublished work, and when it has been published, it may be registered as a published work. A person who has preregistered a work must register the work within one month after the copyright owner becomes aware of infringement and no later than three months after first publication. If full registration is not made within the prescribed time period, a court must dismiss an action for copyright infringement that occurred before or within the first two months after first publication. To preregister, a copyright owner must apply online; no paper application form is available. The effective date is the day on which the completed application and fee for an eligible work have been received in the Copyright Office.
How are copyrights enforced? Is going to court necessary?
If someone violates the rights of a copyright owner, the owner is entitled to file a lawsuit in federal court asking the court to:
- issue orders (restraining orders and injunctions) to prevent further violations
- award money damages if appropriate, and
- in some circumstances, award attorney fees.
Whether the lawsuit will be effective and whether damages will be awarded depends on whether the alleged infringer can raise one or more legal defenses to the charge. Common legal defenses to copyright infringement are:
- too much time has elapsed between the infringing act and the lawsuit (the statute of limitations defense)
- the infringement is allowed under the fair use doctrine (discussed above)
- the infringement was innocent (the infringer had no reason to know the work was protected by copyright)
- the infringing work was independently created (that is, it wasn't copied from the original), or
- the copyright owner authorized the use in a license.
If someone has good reason to believe that a use is fair -- but later finds herself on the wrong end of a court order -- she is likely to be considered an innocent infringer at worst. Innocent infringers often don't have to pay any damages to the copyright owner, but do have to cease the infringing activity and sometimes must pay the owner for the reasonable commercial value of that use.
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