How Do You Register a Database With the U.S. Copyright Office?

Businesses often have valuable information contained in databases. Sometimes, these might include customer or client information, sales records, or other business data. While copyright protection for databases is limited, registering a database with the U.S. Copyright Office may offer some benefits for protecting the information.

Registration Is a Prerequisite to Filing an Infringement Suit

If you are an American citizen or legal resident, and your database or other copyrighted work is first published in the United States (or simultaneously in the U.S. and another country), you may not file a copyright infringement suit in this country unless your work has been registered with the Copyright Office.

This may seem counter-intuitive, since copyright is automatic. You legally own a copyright, whether you register or not. But you may not use the legal process to enforce your rights unless you have first followed the legal procedure for registration.

This does not mean that infringers of unregistered copyrights can never be sued; you can register your copyright at any time and then sue.

You may think, "Big deal, I'll register if and when someone infringes on my software and I need to file a lawsuit." If you adopt this strategy and someone infringes on your work, however, you'll probably end up having to register in a hurry, so you can file suit quickly. You'll have to pay a hefty extra fee for such expedited registration. Moreover, if problems arise with completing and sending in the application or getting it approved by the Copyright Office, you could face a substantial delay before you can file your suit.

Registration Protects Your Copyright by Making It a Public Record

When you register your copyright, it becomes a matter of official public record. In practical terms, this means:

  • you are the presumed owner of the copyright in the material deposited with the registration, and
  • the information contained in your copyright registration form is presumed to be true.

These legal presumptions will be applied if you become involved in a court dispute. This does not mean that if you register you automatically win a copyright infringement case, however. Registration only causes the court to make these presumptions in the absence of proof to the contrary.

In other words, if another author claims original authorship in a work that's identical or similar to yours, everything you state on your registration form, including the date you created your work, will be taken by the court as true unless the other author proves differently.

Timely Registration Makes It Easier to Win Money Damages in Court

The benefits of registering your database discussed above are available whenever you register. However, if you register either before an infringement of your work begins or within three months of publishing the database, you'll become entitled to two additional benefits in the event that you sue an infringer and prevail in the case:

  • the court can order the other side to pay your attorney fees and court costs, and
  • you may elect to have the court award statutory damages (special damages of up to $150,000 per infringement) without having to establish what damage you actually suffered.

As a practical matter, the potential to recover attorney fees can determine whether you can afford to sue. In many copyright infringement cases, attorney fees exceed the potential benefits of winning the lawsuit.

How to Register Your Database

Since most databases are frequently updated or revised, the Copyright Office has instituted a special group registration procedure, whereby a database and all the updates or other revisions made within any three-month period may be registered in one application. This way, a database need only be registered a maximum of four times per year, rather than each time it is updated or revised. This can save substantial time and money.

Qualifying for Group Registration

To qualify for group registration, a database must meet all of the following conditions:

  • All of the updates or revisions must be fixed or published only in machine-readable copies.
  • All of the updates or revisions must have been created or published within a three-month period, all within the same calendar year.
  • All of the updates or revisions must be owned by the same copyright claimant.
  • All of the updates or revisions must have the same general title, and
  • The updates or revisions must be organized in a similar way.

Registering Online

Most databases can be registered online through the Copyright Office website. This Web-based copyright registration system is called the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO). When you register online, you complete the application at the eCO website and pay your fee electronically. Certain types of deposits can also be made online. However, other types must be sent in hard-copy form to the Copyright Office by postal mail.

To register using eCO, go to the Copyright Office website and click electronic Copyright Office. You’ll be taken directly to the eCO online system. You’ll find links to a very thorough eCO tutorial, which you should read before tackling your online application.

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