Some authors are confused about registering their copyrights. They may think that it’s not necessary, or that they’ve mailed themselves a copy or done something else to prove they wrote their work and that’s all that matters. While proving authorship is important, there’s several other good reasons why authors should make a habit of registering their copyrights:
1. Registration is the best proof of ownership you can get. Yes, the Berne Convention says that copyright exists immediately upon fixation of the work (a technical way of saying “as soon as you write it down”). But if someone rips you off, you might find that you wish you had some proof of when you wrote the original work. If you have a copyright registration for something you’ve written, then that’s proof that anyone who came after you is ripping you off. And it’s not hard: go to http://www.copyright.gov/eco/ and pay $35. It might not be worth it for a blog post. But for a magazine article even, this can pay off. And remember: it’s tax-deductible.
2. Registrations don’t lie. I’ve seen lots of people suggest mailing yourself a copy of your work. Yes, that’s one good way to prove you wrote the manuscript, and with email it’s even easier. But this kind of proof can be faked, or at least challenged by someone who rips you off and wants to make your life miserable. A registration is an official US government record, and challenging those in court is much harder than just arguing that someone didn’t really put an envelope in the mail. It basically requires you to prove that a US government database is wrong. And no matter what we might think about the efficiencies of government, that’s much harder than you might think.
3. You have to register to sue someone. If someone rips you off and you think you need to sue them in order to get them to stop, you’ll need to have a registered copyright. It’s no longer the case that you don’t have ownership at all unless you register (that ended in the USA in 1989). But you need to have registered before you can sue. Might as well get that out of the way early. Because…
4. If you don’t register it’s not worth your while to sue. There is this wonderful thing called statutory damages which makes lawyers happy. You know those lawsuits where the RIAA is suing teenagers for $10 million? Those are possible because of statutory damages, which allow for creators to recover up to $100,000 per work infringed. The catch: you can only get them if you’ve registered a copyright within 90 days of publishing the work. Otherwise you’re limited to actual damages, which require you to prove that you’ve lost sales. Does that mean you can get money from statutory damages without having to prove any lost sales?
About the author: Don McGowan is an adjunct professor of Entertainment Law at the University of Washington and the General Counsel of The Pokémon Company International. Before being at Pokémon he was the head lawyer for Microsoft Game Studios. He writes a legal blog with practical tips for creators and creatives at www.legalminimum.net and tweets from @LegalMinimum. He is also a failed standup comic and once narrated romance novel books on tape. So there’s that.