Debunking Copyright Registration Myths

Authors are often confused about the benefits and timing of copyright registration for creative works. It's a universal issue authors must understand, regardless of the publishing path they choose, so today we're taking a quick and dirty look at some popular myths--and truths--about copyright registration.

Myth #1: You Have to Register Copyright, or You Lose It.

The truth: Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office (or with foreign copyright offices, where appropriate) is not a legal requirement for copyright ownership.

Copyright ownership attaches automatically at the time a qualifying work is created. (For the sake of time and space...short stories, novellas, novels, anthologies and most other published fiction and non-fiction works generally qualify for copyright protection.)

However, copyright registration is required in order to obtain a variety of protections available to copyright holders under U.S. Law. Among them:

  • The right to sue infringers to stop infringement.
  • The right to collect statutory damages (money damages, in amounts set by law) from infringers.
  • The right to recover attorney fees against an infringer in a successful lawsuit.

Myth #2: If You Don't Register Before The Book Is Published, You're Screwed and Cannot Register At All.

(And yes, "screwed" is the technical legal term.)

The Truth: To maximize access to legal rights, an author's copyright should be registered within 90 days of the initial publication date. (Note: publishing the work for free online can constitute "publication" - so consult an attorney before you self-publish or release the work to the public in any form.)

However, authors can register copyright at any time. ANY. TIME. Although some legal rights--for example, the right to recover statutory damages and attorney fees--are lost if the 90-day window passes, other legal rights are available to the copyright holder at any time after registration, no matter when the registration is filed.

In other words: it's never too late to register. It just might cost you some rights if you delay.

Myth #3: Authors Should Register Copyright Before Querying Agents.

The Truth: Not unless the work is already published--and even then, the registration trigger is publication, not queries.

Sometimes authors think they need to register copyright to protect the work from being stolen by unscrupulous agents or publishers. To this, I have two answers:

First: why are you querying unscrupulous agents and publishers?? Do your homework and query only reputable industry professionals.

Second: Although this scenario might have happened to someone, somewhere, registering copyright to avoid an agent stealing your work is about as effective as wearing bulletproof briefs to prevent a random stranger from shooting you in the crotch as they pass by. Again...it might have happened, but if you're hanging out in places where this sort of thing goes on, a re-evaluation of life choices might be in order.

Registering copyright too early can create problems for traditional publishers, most of whom register copyright on the authors behalf. If the work is already registered, the publisher has to complete a different kind of registration, for a 'revised edition' of the work--which creates extra paperwork and headaches all around.

Myth #4: Legitimate Traditional Publishers Always Register Copyright for the Author.

The Truth: Many do, but some don't.

If you publish traditionally, your contract should contain language stating; (a) who is responsible for registering the copyright, and (b) that the publisher will include a copyright notice which satisfies the requirements of U.S. law in all copies of the work published and sold. If the language isn't there...ask for the publisher to insert it. If you don't know what language to ask for...consult a publishing lawyer.

Myth #5: Registering a Copyright is Difficult/Expensive/Requires a Lawyer

The Truth: None of the above.

Most copyrights can be registered online at the U.S. Copyright Office website (www.copyright.gov); in most cases, registration costs less than $50. The copyright office website has a tutorial for copyright registration that can walk authors through the process, step by step, with useful explanations for some of the more confusing terms.

The copyright office's tutorial isn't perfect--there are some areas where I think it could use improvement, and I'm planning a #PubLaw copyright registration booklet (when I get the time to write it...and a unicorn that takes dictation). Even so, it makes what might seem confusing much simpler, so anyone can do it.

So...when SHOULD you register copyright?

If you plan to self-publish, register copyright on your publication day if possible; definitely register within the 90-day window to preserve your rights.

If you publish traditionally, ensure your contract dictates who will handle the registration, and if the task falls to you follow through on publication day or within that first critical 90 days after initial publication.

And there you have it...a whirlwind tour of common copyright registration myths and the truths behind them. We now return you to your regularly scheduled summer fun.

Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, just released on July 14. When not writing or practicing law, Susan raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

Susan Spann
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

2 thoughts on “Debunking Copyright Registration Myths

  1. Susan, I was one who fell for all those myths at the beginning of my writing journey. But I did my homework, found the website, and whizzed through the process in a jiffy. Thanks for putting this info out there for those who need to know.

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