When to Register Your Work

Ben Wilson suggests there's too much bad advice on copyrighting, and proceeds to offer more bad advice.

Category: writing

label_outline tag Copyrighttag Legal

There’s a lot of bad copyright advice out there. I recently read a blog (that is no longer published as of 2012) that offered what I considered questionable copyright advice. I’ve read a lot of advice on copyright and writing over the past 25 years, and the article rehashed most of it. While I am not a lawyer, I did earn a Juris Doctorate, and focused on Intellectual property law. So, I have a different perspective.

Disclaimer! Only licensed attorneys are allowed to give legal advice. I have a law degree, but I am not a licensed attorney. I am only telling you my perception on copyright. I encourage you to contact an intellectual property attorney for proper legal advice. If anybody gives you legal advice who is not your attorney...check with an attorney.

Should you be worried about your copyright? Some writers will say, “your first book will be terrible, so don’t worry.” Tell that to J.K. Rowling. Others will suggest the “poor-man’s copyright,” which is to mail yourself a copy of the work to show you did it first. Here’s the summation of the legal advice the now defunct blogger offered:

Ok, so I still haven’t convinced you. Here are some things you can do.

  • Check the US Copyright office for great tips on copyrighting works
  • Print out or put on disk your complete novel then mail it to yourself via certified mail. Then when you receive it you don’t open it. Just file it away. This establishes a credible time line for when the work was written and finished. (Note: this is the poor man’s copyright)
  • Email the novel to a friend and ask him to just save the email. This also lends credibility to the date of creation. (Note: this is a weaker variant of the poor-man’s copyright).

The U.S. Copyright office does not have great tips on copyrighted works. It tells you what the law is and how to register, but it does not offer legal advice. Under U.S. law, it cannot offer legal advice. Only a licensed attorney can. Printing a completed copy of your manuscript and mailing it to yourself is insufficient proof, as is emailing the novel to a friend.

First, your work is copyrighted the moment you document it. That is, when you write your Word document, your text file, or fill up a legal pad with pen scratches, what you wrote is copyrighted—assuming you’re not copying down somebody else’s effort. An idea is not copyrightable, but your expression of an idea is. (I won’t get into patents or trademarks here.) My point is this: your work is already protected. What you need is to establish a timeline that shows you originated the work.

Not since 1976 have you had to register a copyright for it to be valid in the United States. In fact, your terrible first draft of your light-hearted steampunk Sci-fi, horror, romance, comedy mash-up is protected until decades after your death—it may not become public domain for a century!

Q: “Then why should I bother registering?”

Whether your work is a registered or unregistered copyright, you have legal recourse as the work creator. In both cases, you can have the court stop the infringer from future copyright violation. When you have a registered copyright, then you can also sue for monetary damages, essentially taking the infringer’s profit away from him. You can’t do that with an unregistered copyright under U.S. copyright law. When you hear of RIAA recovering large sums from infringers, that’s because the works are registered. If you’re going to self-publish, then once you’ve accepted the proof and put the book into print, then consider going through the registration process.

The registered copyright holder is presumed to be the work’s originator as a fact of law. That makes it easier to establish your ownership over the work. However, there are ways to establish your ownership short of registering.

When you’re still drafting, there’s no value to registering. It costs a bit of money, takes time, and meant for finished products. Wait until you’re ready to publish.

I have been told some publishers will steer clear of authors who register the work before shopping it. I don’t know this for certain as I self-publish. If they accept the work they will edit and make you rewrite anyway—creating a derivative work that they would register. That puts them in a bit of a painful position. So the story goes, a new author who registers a copyright telegraphs his arrogance, insecurity and distrust. “My first novel will beat out J.K. Rowling, and I’d like you to publish it but I don’t trust you to be a professional and not steal it—so I registered it.”

My perspective is: your work is already protected. Registration is applied to a finished work—which won’t happen until the very end of a time consuming effort with a publisher (even if you’re self-publishing, draft to proof is no fewer hours). If you’re still looking for an agent or publisher, the book is far from finished. Understand? In my opinion, it’s putting the cart before the horse in the eyes of a publishing professional.

Registered copyright also helps with takedown requests. When an infringer publishes your site on the Internet, then you can request the web host provider to take down the content. To do so, you may be required to prove you were the copyright holder. Registration makes this easier. In a follow-up article, I will share how I protect my copyright.

When to register your copyright is a matter to be discussed between you and your attorney. I personally think we authors rush to register too soon. What do you think?

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