How to Register a Copyright for a Creative Work [2021]

It's actually surprisingly easy to register a copyright for a new creative work. In fact, in most cases you can finish the application in less than an hour.

It’s actually surprisingly easy to register a copyright for a new creative work.

Put simply, the general process goes as follows:

  1. The moment you create a “finished” version of your creative work you immediately gain copyright protections for that work. These protections are automatic, and do not require registration with the U.S. copyright office.
  2. In order to enforce your copyright (such as through a copyright infringement lawsuit), you need to register your copyright with the copyright office. Generally, you should do so within three months of publishing your work (or within three months of finding out that someone is infringing on your work).
  3. Actually registering your copyright is rather simple, and (generally) just involves submitting the right form to the copyright office alongside some copies of your creative work. You’ll also have to pay a small filing fee.
  4. If the copyright office approves your application, you’ll receive your copyright certificate in the mail roughly three to four months later.

In this article we’ll expand on this process and answer a few basic questions you may have about U.S. copyright law.

Note, however, that it’s generally recommended that you speak with an experienced IP attorney before you submit your application to the copyright office.

Only an attorney who has reviewed your entire case can provide the advice you need to submit a strong application.

A Quick Introduction to U.S. Copyright Law

Learn how to register a copyright in 5 basic steps

A copyright is a form of intellectual property protection provided by U.S. federal law.

There are no state-level copyright laws, meaning that any legal dispute regarding a copyright is subject to the same federal governing laws, regardless of where the two parties settle the dispute or where the dispute originated.

The current law governing copyrights in the U.S. is the Copyright Act of 1976, as codified in Title 17 of the U.S. Code.

Copyright specifically protects fixed, tangible mediums of expression for various works of authorship from the infringement of other parties.

Put simply, having the “copy rights” to a particular creative work means that you hold several exclusive rights to do any of the following with the work:

  • Reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords.
  • Prepare derivative works based on the work. Note that a derivative work is not an exact copy. It is a creation based on the existing copyrighted work, such as translations, adaptations, and reproductions of the work in different formats. For example, a copyright holder is the only person who has the right to make a movie from their copyrighted book or authorize someone else to do so.
  • Distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.
  • In the case of literary, musical, dramatic and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly.
  • In the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly.
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

If someone uses your work in any of these ways without your explicit permission (or a legal defense such as fair use), they’ve infringed your copyright rights.

What can I register as a copyright?

Under current U.S. law, the term “copyrightable work” includes original forms of expression created in the following formats:

  • Literary works may include books, software code, and comics.
  • Musical works may include compositions in writing as well as the lyrics (playing a cover may be a public performance of the musical work).
  • Dramatic works.
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works.
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works.
  • Sound recordings (this is the master recording that may be an mp3/mp4 file and specifically online).
  • Architectural works.

Importantly, please note that these categories are intentionally broad, and don’t cover everything you can register as a copyright in the U.S.

In fact, as long as your work is an original work of expression that’s fixed in a tangible form (and it doesn’t fall into a different category such as a patent), you can probably register a copyright for it.

A more useful method of determining if you can copyright a particular work or not is to compare it to a list of things that cannot be copyrighted:

  • Ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, devices. However, written or recorded descriptions, explanations, or illustrations of such things can be copyrighted (such as technical manuals or diagrams). 
  • Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans, which are generally covered under trademark law.
  • Works that are not fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as a speech or performance that is not recorded or written down.
  •  Works consisting entirely of information that is commonly available that were created without originality. For example, standard calendars, measures, rulers, any most kinds of lists and tables of data compiled from public documents or common sources.
  • Works by the U.S. government.

However, the best course of action for individuals who are unsure about whether they can register a copyright for their work is simply to talk to an attorney.

Copyright law can sometimes be confusing (especially for fringe cases), so it’s always smart to talk things over with an attorney before you make any lasting decisions in your case.

How much does it cost to register a copyright?

The basic answer is that it will cost around $45 to $65 to register your copyright, provided you fill out the application online and do all the work yourself.

Filing by mail increases this cost to $125.

Note as well that you may also have to pay associated costs, such as if you hire an attorney to assist you or if you need to send in a physical copy of your creative work.

You can review all of the associated fees on the Copyright Office’s website.

What are the benefits of registering a copyright?

Generally speaking, registration provides three major benefits to copyright holders:

  1. Registration creates a public record — Registering a copyright creates a public record of your claim of ownership over the creative work in question. This means that you will gain a stronger legal right to ownership over the works, as well as a stronger position to argue from in the event you have to file an infringement lawsuit.
  2. Registration is a required prerequisite for an infringement lawsuit — In order to file a copyright infringement lawsuit you need to first register your copyright with the U.S. copyright office. Generally, you should make sure to register your copyright within three months of the date the infringement occurred. Otherwise you may lose out on potential damages. Expedited applications cost hundreds of dollars as opposed to $45.
  3. Registration leads to ownership validation — By registering your copyright at the federal level you also gain several benefits relating to ownership validation, including, but not limited to, (a) the establishment of a record with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to protect against the importation of infringing copies, (b) proof of the validity of your copyright for the duration of your lifetime and for a significant period after you die, and (c) the ability to file for statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and other associated costs when you submit an infringement lawsuit to the court.

While copyright registration is relatively cheap and easy to do, it’s still wise to weigh the pros and cons of the situation before you choose to submit an application.

In general, however, the pros of registration almost always outweigh the cons of the application fees and time spent on your application.

How to Register a Copyright in 5 Easy Steps

Woman hands with pen writing on notebook in the office.

As we noted above, it’s actually surprisingly easy to register a copyright for a creative work.

In fact, you can probably complete the whole process in less than an hour, provided you get all the required materials together beforehand.

We’ll outline the basics of this process below, but please keep in mind that it’s highly recommended that you speak with an IP attorney before you submit your application.

Only an attorney who has reviewed your entire case can provide actionable advice about your specific matter.

1. Create Your Work

In the U.S. you automatically gain the legal rights associated with copyright the moment you finish creating your work.

For this reason, it’s generally advisable to retain some record or proof of the date you finished your work.

This way, if someone infringes on your work at a later date you can point to the exact moment you created your original work.

2. Confirm You Have the Right to Copyright the Work

In the event that the work has other authors or interested parties, you’ll also have to get permission from each of these individuals before you register your copyright.

This is especially relevant in situations where other people contributed to the creative work, such as if people contributed to an open source coding project or if certain pieces were created by your employees or independent contractors.

While most employment contracts or licenses will cover these topics, the important thing to remember is that you should make sure you have the sole, exclusive right to copyright the work before you submit the application.

3. Complete the Copyright Registration Form

Screenshot of the copyright office literary works page with the preview links highlighted
A screenshot taken from the Literary Works page on Copyright.gov. Note the two links in the red box, with provide a preview of what the registration process will look like.

The most time-intensive step in the registration process is completing the copyright registration form.

Put simply, this form will establish the basic facts of your claim, and will ask basic details about your work such as:

  1. The title of the work;
  2. The author of the work;
  3. The name and address of the claimant/ owner of the copyright;
  4. The year of creation;
  5. Whether the work is published;
  6. Whether the work has been previously registered; and 
  7. Whether the work includes pre-existing material.

Note that you can preview the entire application process in Powerpoint format on the Copyright Office’s website.

Just go to the correct application page and click “Preview the Application” in the box under the log in button.

4. Submit the Completed Form with Copies of Your Work and the Registration Fee

Once you complete the registration form you’ll have to submit it alongside the required copy (or copies) of the work to be registered.

Depending on what medium your work is in, and the nature of the work, the requirements surrounding the deposit copy can differ.

The main differences in deposit copy requirements depend on (1) whether the work has been published or not, (2) whether it’s in a digital or physical format, and (3) if the author published the work in the U.S. or a foreign country.

If you published your copyrighted work in the U.S., it is subject to a “mandatory deposit” provision.

The mandatory deposit provision requires the copyright holder to send two complete copies of the “best edition” of their published work to the U.S. Copyright Office within three months of publication.

The “best edition” of a work is “the edition, published in the United States at any time before the date of deposit, that the Library of Congress determines to be most suitable for its purposes.”

You can comply with this requirement when you register your work.

The purpose of this requirement is to ensure that the Library of Congress has a copy of every copyrightable work that is published in the U.S.

The Copyright Office uses the deposit copy as a way to evaluate your claim and to maintain the public record of registered copyrights.

You will also have to pay the $45 fee for online applications, as described above.

5. Receive Your Copyright Certificate in the Mail

You should receive a notice in the mail with the Copyright Office’s decision around 3.2 months after you submit your online application.

Note, however, that claims can range anywhere from one to nine months depending on the circumstances of the case (or longer if you file by mail).

If the Copyright Office rejects your application you will receive a notice in the mail with information on how you can appeal the decision.

If they choose to accept your application, you’ll receive a Copyright Certificate in the mail alongside your approval notice.

Conclusion

Mixed race woman singing and playing guitar while sitting on chair with legs crossed. In background drummer, saxophonist and bass guitarist.

Copyright holders gain several important rights when they successfully register a copyright for their works with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Best of all, registration is actually surprisingly easy, and, in most cases, can be done in less than an hour.

If you experience any problems while registering, however, please don’t hesitate to reach out to an attorney for guidance.

Only an attorney can provide the specific advice you need to resolve your case both quickly and effectively.

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Everything You Need to Know About Federal Trademark Registration!

Download our detailed, 47-page guide to registering your first trademark and learn how to complete the trademark application in a single business day!

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