How to Register Copyright in a Software Application: Part 1

A three-part article explaining how to register copyright in a software application using Form CO.

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Registering Copyright Using Form CO: Part 1

In this series of articles, we’ll explain how to register a copyright for a software program. These rules will apply regardless of the type of program, computer language, media (or download type), or purpose.

We’ll describe how to fill out the all-purpose Form CO which is probably your best choice for registering your app. It can be downloaded from the Copyright Office website and you fill it out on your computer (using Adobe Reader software) and print it.

(Alternatively, you can apply the principles in these articles and use the online filing system at the Copyright Office (known as “eCO”). That process has three parts. The applicant: (1) completes the online interview, (2) pays the fee (payment can be made by credit/debit card, ACH, or by setting up a deposit account), and (3) uploads or mails copies of the work. You will need to create a user account and password. The eCO system includes a special “Save for Later” feature that will preserve your work in the event you sign off and then sign on at a later time.)

We think you’ll find Form CO fairly easy to use and you can keep a copy for your records. One thing to keep in mind, after you fill it in and print out Form CO, do not alter it by hand. That’s because the information used by the Copyright Office is primarily stored in the barcodes on the form. If you want to register a series of software programs, keep the form open in Adobe Reader after you print it; then make the necessary changes and print the subsequent version, as well.

Below are instructions for completing Form CO. Some of this information is taken verbatim from the instructions provided by the Copyright Office. We won’t get sued because as you may know, all works prepared by employees of the U.S. government within the course of their employment are free to use and reproduce.

Okay, assuming you’ve downloaded Form CO, you will see a series of sections that need to be completed. Two things to remember as you proceed:

  • an asterisk (*) indicates a required field and two asterisks (** ) indicates required alternate fields (one of two fields required);
  • for copyright purposes, the creator of a software application (the programmer or developer) is usually the “author,” (though the rules may be different if someone hired you to create the program) and the software application being registered is the “work.”

Learn more about employer-ownership of software programs.

Okay, here we go.

Section 1 - Work Being Registered

1A*- Type of work being registered. You can use one Form CO for all of the programs/works that you want to register. Check the appropriate box for the type of work (see below) which is either literary work (used for most programs), performing arts work (primarily for games and graphic intensive applications), or visual arts work (primarily a series of images). If your software program contains more than one type of authorship, choose the type for the predominant authorship in the work. Keep in mind that if you’re in doubt about how to characterize your code, literary work is your best bet.

What If Your Application Includes Music, Photos, Text Graphics, Sounds And Code?

If your application includes multiple media, you need to determine which elements are your original authorship. For example, if you only contributed some text and software code, and you licensed the rest from others, then you would only claim copyright (and seek registration) for what you created. You indicate that information in Form CO—the all purpose copyright application—in the section under ‘authorship.’ (Later, in Section 4A of the form you must list the items for which you are not claiming copyright.) Initially, with any copyright application you must establish what “category” of work you are registering. Most software programs are registered as ‘literary works’ – an anachronism dating back to the fact that source code is written in letters and numerals. However, if your software program is primarily pictures, choose ‘visual arts’ work, and if it is a graphics-heavy product like a game, choose ‘performing arts’ work. Don’t worry if your software program seems to straddle two categories—just pick the one that seems best to you.

1B* - Title of work. Enter the title of your program. Give the complete title exactly as it appears on the material about the software application. If there is no title copy, give an identifying phrase to serve as the title or state “untitled.” Use standard title capitalization without quotation marks; for example, Carrot Cake V11.2. If you want to include additional title(s)—for example, titles of individual works in an unpublished collection or works owned by the same claimant, click the “additional title” button.

1C - Serial issue. A serial is a work issued or intended to be issued in successive parts and intended to be continued indefinitely. You can leave this blank.

1D - Previous or alternative title. If the software application is known by another title, give that title here.

1E* - Year of completion. Give the year in which creation of the software application was completed—the date you stood back, looked at the sceen and said, “I’m done.” If the software application has been published (see below for more on publication), the year of completion cannot be later than the year of first publication.

When is a Software Program Published?

The word “publication” has a broader meaning than you might expect in the copyright world. A work is considered to be published under copyright law if you sell, distribute or offer to sell or distribute copies of your software application to the public. When you display it for sale at a trade show, that’s also considered to be a publication.

1F–1H - Date of publication. Give the complete date, in mm/dd/yyyy format, on which the software application was first published. If you’re unsure, pick a date as close as reasonably possible. Do not give a date that is in the future. Leave this line blank if the software application is unpublished.

1G – ISBN. You can leave this blank.

1H - Nation of publication. Give the nation where the software application was first published. If the software application was first published simultaneously in the United States and another country; you can list the United States. Leave this line blank if the software application is unpublished.

1I - Published as a contribution in a larger work entitled. If this software application has been published as part of a larger work—for example, it’s one software application from a collection—enter the title of the larger work.

Ready to continue?

How to Register a Software Application Using Form CO Part 2: Completing Sections 2 through 4 of Form CO.

How to Register a Software Application Using Form CO Part 3: Completing Sections 5 through 8 of Form CO (And Mailing a Deposit)

Why Should You Register Your Software?

by: , J.D.

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