Welcome to my “Essential Considerations” series for intellectual property (IP) matters, wherein I review the important principles and processes IP holders need to know. From patenting your invention to keeping trade secrets secret, this series breaks down the sometimes labyrinthine world of IP law into a digestible question and answer format.
This Essential Considerations installment concerns copyrights. How does a copyright protect your work? What happens if you don’t register or enforce your copyright? Find the answers to these and more frequently asked questions below.
What is a copyright?
A copyright is a legal tool intended to protect what the law refers to as an “original work of authorship” that is fixed in a tangible medium: for example, a film, book, song, script, recording, software application, or architectural blueprint. In basic terms, copyright is the ownership rights associated with one’s work product.
Copyright law grants rights to authors while deterring imitators and plagiarizers who aim to pass off stolen work as their own. Copyright holders have exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, perform, and display their work publicly, as well as the right to prepare derivative works (e.g. translations, adaptations, sequels, and remixes). That also means copyright holders can permit—by sale, Creative Commons license, or otherwise—others to reproduce or build on their work. One exception lies in the doctrine of “fair use”: copyrighted material may in some cases be used without permission, on a limited basis, for purposes such as education, commentary, parody, journalism, search engine listings, and research.
In order to be eligible for copyright, a work can be published or unpublished, but it must exist in a fixed, tangible medium. You cannot copyright an idea, fact, procedure, or method.
Contrast copyrights with trademarks, which protect a brand’s distinguishing characteristics, and patents, which protect inventions.
Why should I register my copyright?
You earn copyright protection automatically, from the moment you create your work. Nonetheless, many intellectual property holders choose to register their copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office. This is a good idea for several reasons:
- It gives public notice and a record that you own the work and the date on which you created it.
- It allows you to bring lawsuits related to the registered work against infringing parties.
- In the event the that court determines an infringement of the registered work, you could be entitled to receive monetary damages, as well as compensation for attorneys’ fees.
Finally, by registering your copyright, you gain avenues to pursue enforcement in several countries with which the U.S. has copyright agreements.
How much does it cost to register my copyright?
The cost of registering a copyright is relatively inexpensive, and ranges between $35 and $85. Registration is cheaper if a) you are the only author and claimant of the work, b) you are only registering one work, c) the work was not created for hire, and d) you file online. Costs rise when there are more authors or claimants, or if you fill out your registration on paper.
If you suspect someone may infringe on your work before you have a chance to register it (e.g. if the work remains unfinished), you may decide to pay $140 in order to preregister. Note that while it allows for legal action to be taken, preregistration is not equivalent to registration.
Other, more costly forms of registration may be necessary for specific kinds of works such as vessel hull designs and semiconductor chips. You may also have to pay additional fees for corrections and renewals of copyrights.
For a full breakdown of the various copyright fees, click here. If you choose to hire an attorney to file a copyright on your behalf, be aware of additional legal costs.
How long does it take to register my copyright?
The time it takes to register a copyright varies, and depends on the U.S. Copyright Office’s current workload and capacity. The office’s current, general processing times are about 8 months for electronically filed applications and 13 months for applications filed on paper. If you have submitted your completed application, paid the requisite fee, and sent in a satisfactory copy of the work in question, you do not need to wait for a certificate to publish your copyright—you already have it.
What happens if I don’t register my copyright?
The major drawback of not registering your copyright is losing out on the litigation benefits it provides. Without registration, you won’t be able to recover statutory damages or legal fees. Consider also how public information about your copyright communicates your intentions for your work. Aside from discouraging infringement, registration notifies the world at large who owns the copyright, thereby paving the way for fruitful opportunities for licensing and collaboration.
How do I enforce my copyright?
When publishing your work, attach a copyright symbol (©) along with your name and the date of publication. Next, as suggested above, register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.
After taking these preliminary steps, you will have to be diligent in spotting and curtailing alleged infringement. If you suspect someone has wrongfully copied your work, try to get in contact with the infringing party first. Send an email or letter pointing out the infringement and demanding it stop. Many people who post others’ copyrighted works online don’t realize they have broken the law, and will quickly comply with your request, avoiding the need for legal action.
If that warning is insufficient and your copyrighted work remains unlawfully published somewhere on the Internet, contact the infringing party’s web host or service provider with a takedown notice. Most content-sharing platforms (like YouTube) offer quick, automated ways for copyright holders to submit complaints.
Finally, you may decide to file an injunction or lawsuit against the alleged infringer.
What if I fail to enforce my copyright?
You do not lose your copyright if you don’t enforce it. That happens compulsorily, after a set period of time (for works that you own individually, your lifetime plus 70 years), unless you sell or give away your ownership. What you do lose by failing to enforce your copyright is its value. Others reap the benefits of your creation while you deny yourself the proceeds or statutory damages. Over time, the association between your name and the copyrighted material fades, and you no longer receive the credit you deserve.
For further information about copyrights, visit the U.S. Copyright Office’s FAQ page.
Have a question about copyrights I haven’t answered here, or need advice about any other IP matter? Click here to contact me. You can also find more of my guidance on IP-related legal issues at the Friday Factoids’ Resources page.
Offit Kurman’s Intellectual Property Group helps dynamic businesses and individuals to develop and protect their IP assets. We can help you through all stages of your IP matters—from concept through development, registration, licensing, marketing, renewals, enforcement and sales. Our comprehensive and strategic approach to IP protection is designed to maximize the value of your IP assets and minimize the related risks. Learn more about our IP practice here.
ABOUT JONATHAN WACHS
Jonathan Wachs provides strategic counseling and operational advice to clients in the areas of intellectual property, commercial transactions and outsourced legal departments. As head of the firm’s Intellectual Property Group, Mr. Wachs works closely with clients to develop, register, analyze, enforce, and transfer intellectual property assets in a customized, cost-efficient, and highly effective manner. Additionally, he conducts intellectual property audits through which clients learn the nature and value of their intellectual property assets and the steps needed to protect such assets from misappropriation or dilution. As a business lawyer, he has successfully negotiated and completed several multimillion dollar business transactions and has served as general counsel to several small and midsize businesses and organizations in various industries and professions. He also manages a blog about intellectual property issues, Friday Factoids. Mr. Wachs co-manages New Paradigm Counsel, a service through which Offit Kurman delivers customized, comprehensive and cost-effective outsourced legal departments. Through New Paradigm Counsel, Jon served as outsourced general counsel for a government contractor, a large printing business, a payment processing company and an identity theft restoration business.
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