How Do I Register?
Check out the U.S. Copyright Office.
Registration is a simple, but somewhat time consuming process, probably why the majority of copyright holders do not register their work. You fill out a form, pay a fee and submit a copy of your work, either on line or via regular mail, which the copyright office calls a deposit. The copyright office encourages on-line registration, payment and uploading of the copy of your work through the new electronic Copyright Office (eCO). Your copyright registration is effective on the date the Copyright office receives a completed application, so registering on-line is faster too.
The on-line process costs $35 per submission, compared to $50 – $65 for mail-in applications. Currently eCO only accepts basic registrations – single work, a collection of unpublished work by the same author and owner or multiple published works by the same author if they are contained in the same piece, such as songs on a CD.
Photographers who shoot hundreds or thousands of images a year can register them as collections (subject to some limitations), and pay one fee, rather than a fee for each image. If you are registering a collection, don’t mix published and unpublished images and for published work, it has to have been published in the same year.
Do I Have To?
No, you are not legally required to register your copyright, but you should do it.
Registration confers certain benefits if someone has infringed your work. If you register your work in a timely fashion, defined by law as before it is infringed or within 90 days of publication you have the full protection of the law. You can sue for statutory damages (called statutory because the remedy is written in the Copyright Act) which can range from $750 to $30,000 for an innocent infringement or up to $150,000 for willful infringement. More importantly you can seek to be reimbursed by the infringer for your legal fees if you win your case.
The Clock is Ticking…
If you haven’t registered your work in a “timely” fashion then you can only sue for actual damages which courts have defined as the extent to which the market value of a copyrighted work has been injured or destroyed by an infringement. This is very hard to prove.
Not registering your copyright in a timely fashion can be costly as sculptor Jack Mackie discovered when he sued the Seattle Symphony Orchestra for infringement when it published a photograph of one of his scupltures without his permission (Jack Mackie v. Connie Rieser and Seattle Symphony Orchestra Public Benefit Corporation, 296 F.3d 909 (9th Circuit, 2002).) Mackie, a public works sculptor, was commissioned by the city of Seattle to create a series of sidewalk installations entitled The Dance Steps. One of those pieces, The Tango, was infringed when The Seattle Symphony orchestra published a photograph of it, without Mackie’s permission, as part of a promotional mailing sent to 150,000 people. Mackie had not registered the work before this infringement, so he had to sue for actual damages. He could not prove that the value of his work had been damaged, and even though he testified that he would not have licensed the image for less than $85,000, the Court awarded him only $1,000—the amount it decided that a “willing buyer would have been reasonably required to pay a willing seller” for the use.