Should I register my copyright?
People who have written a paper, composed a piece of music, or created a work often ask if they should register their copyright. The simple answer is: "It depends."
Copyright registration is not required to get a copyright in the United States or most other countries. Since 1978, authors in the US have automatically had copyrights in any original work, from the instant they have "fixed" it -- written it down, committed it to print, recording, or any format, electronic or print. It's not necessary to register the copyright any more, or even to include a copyright notice with the famous (c) symbol.
With a copyright comes all the "exclusive rights" of a copyright holder: the right to authorize whether and how a work can be reproduced or distributed, have derivative works made, or be publicly performed or displayed. Rightsholders can license their works; send cease and desist or demand letters to unauthorized users; or sell or give away their copyrights.
But, copyright registration offers certain advantages. Copyright registration is required before suing in the US -- the US court wants to be sure that rightsholders are on record as being the rightsholder. And timely copyright registration permits rightsholders who win a copyright infringement case to receive "statutory damages" -- amounts ranging up to as much as $150,000 for willful infringements of individual works, without having to demonstrate any harms.
Copyrights, registered or not, do not give authors everything they might want.
For instance, copyright does not protect authors against plagiarism. The "exclusive rights" authors receive in the United States do not include the right of "attribution", so copyright is not an armament against plagiarism, per se, unless the plagiarist has committed copyright infringement. Copyright registration might help to establish priority, but the best way to establish priority is to publish and disseminate your work as early as possible. Open access distribution makes it easy to establish priority, and easy to discover infringements.
Copyright also does not prevent all uses of a work -- users have rights under copyright law, such as fair use. And copyright law provides numerous exceptions and limitations, including significant rights for organizations such as libraries, educational institutions, churches, and public broadcasters.
How do I register a copyright?
Copyright registration is relatively inexpensive, and for an individual document, can be done online at the Copyight Office website (http://copyright.gov/ ).
Publishers will also often register copyrights for you. Be careful, however, because publishers will often require assignment of a copyright from an author in exchange for publishing the work.
Should I register a copyright?
It depends. If you are planning to commercialize your work, your agent or publisher may take care of it for you. If you want to do it yourself, it's easy and cheap enough to do it, and there's no detriment to you doing so (except the small fee). If you're planning on commercializing your work, then copyright registration might be a good idea for you.
On the other hand, if you are not planning on commercializing your work, or if you are unlikely to sue prospective infringers, then copyright registration may not be very useful to you. It gives you a strong tool -- the right to sue and the right to ask for statutory damages -- but that's only useful if you're likely to do it.
Graduate students generally do not benefit greatly from registration of their copyrights in scholarly works. Students who are publishing portions of their dissertations as separate research papers will typically see their papers registered by the journals. Similarly, students whose manuscripts are accepted for publication as books will typically see their books -- after significant editing -- registered by their publishers. The Scholarly Communication Department at the Library is always happy to provide information about copyright registration to individual students wishing to investigate the benefits or procedure of registration.
Graduate students producing creative works pose different issues, and what is appropriate may vary greatly depending on their particular field or subfield.
Last Edited: 28 October 2014