What is copyright?

Copyright is the set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of a particular work. These rights include the right to reproduce the work, distribute copies, and create new works based on the original work. Copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, and can protect such things as:

  • Literary works
  • Software code
  • Music compositions, sound recordings
  • Visual works
  • Films, television shows
  • Architectural works
  • Works of art

While copyright registration is not necessary to own a copyright, it is required to enforce your rights and to control the use of your work.

Who owns copyright?

The author of a work owns the copyright. It is pretty self-explanatory, except in the case of "work-for-hire," when the "author" is your employer (such as a software company) or someone (such as a movie studio) specially commissioning a work. Otherwise, most independent artists, authors, and contractors own copyright to the work they create. (Remember this when you sign the contract with your wedding photographer!)

Why should I register copyright?

When another person copies, distributes, performs, or otherwise makes use of your work without your permission, that person has infringed on your copyright. But before you can file a lawsuit to protect your rights, recover any money, or make the person stop using your work, you must first register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Copyright registration proves to a court that you own the work, and it forces any person using your work without your permission to prove that he/she has a legal right to use it, or to stop using it and pay you for it.

What if I don't register copyright?

If you don't register your copyright prior to the infringing action, or within 3 months of the publication of your work, the money you can obtain in a lawsuit is limited to the profits made by the infringer because of his/her illegal use of your work, which may be nothing (for example, posting your music on the Web.)

What if I do register copyright?

If your work is registered before it is infringed, you may also get damages, which are set out in the U.S. Copyright Act and may range from $750 to $30,000. If a court finds that the use of your work was a "willful" infringement (no reasonable excuse), it may award up to $150,000. You may also recover attorney fees and court costs.

Do I get anything when I register?

Upon registration, you receive an official certificate of registration from the U.S. Copyright Office. This can be incredibly helpful when sending letters to companies that think they have the right to use the work, or to Web site hosting companies that are displaying your work without your permission.

How much does it cost to register copyright?

A typical attorney will charge approximately $250-$500 to prepare and file a copyright application. However, many authors file their own application with the U.S. Copyright Office, which only costs time spent and the filing fee of $45 per application. Unfortunately, each application allows for only one work. Some collections-such as multiple photos taken by a single photographer, or all the songs on a single CD-can be registered as a group.

Additional resources:

U.S. Copyright Office

Copyright Office basics

The Copyright Web site

Related Legal Guides:

Trademark Registration Basics

Provisional Patent Application