Copyright Registration and Enforcement

How to get maximum protection from 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.

How do I register 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 using the online eCO system (currently $35 to $55 per application); or
  • file using traditional paper forms (currently $85 per application) such as Form TX for nondramatic literary works, including computer programs, Form PA for audiovisual works, Form VA for graphic art and sculptural works, Form SR for sound recordings, and Form SE for serials and periodicals. Copyright forms can be downloaded from the copyright office website (www.copyright.gov).

Note, the fees change periodically. Check with the Copyright Office for current fees.

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.