How to Register Copyright for a Software Application

Learn how to register a software copyright using Form CO.

By , J.D. USC Gould School of Law

In this article, 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.

Section 2 - Author Information

2A** or 2B – Personal name/Organization name. Complete either 2A or 2B but not both. The person who created the work is the "author." Provide your name, unless you wish to be anonymous or pseudonymous. A co-author is someone who, at the time the work was created, made a copyrightable contribution. Complete section 2B only if the software application is made for hire in which case the hiring party is the author.

Learn more about works for hire and employer-employee authorship/ownership of software programs.

2C - Doing business as. You can leave this blank unless you've transferred software application ownership to a company using a DBA.

2D - Year of birth & 2E - Year of death. Give the year the author was born (and deceased, if applicable). The year of birth is optional but is very useful as a form of author identification because many authors have the same name. Your birth date will be made part of the online public Copyright Office records and cannot be removed later.

2F - Citizenship⁄domicile. Check the U.S. box if applicable, or if the author is a citizen of another country, enter the name of this nation. Alternatively, identify the nation where the author is domiciled (resides permanently). If you wish to remain anonymous (unlikely for most software program developers) and your name is given in line 2A, it will be made part of the online public records produced by the Copyright Office and accessible on the Internet. This information cannot be removed later from those public records.

2H* - This author created. Here you check the appropriate box(es) that describe this author's contribution to this software application. Use any of the boxes – for example, computer program, music, photography—that apply. If you want to add more, give a brief statement on the line after "other" and be specific. The Copyright Office recommends against using terms such as idea, concept, title, or name.

Section 3 - Copyright Claimant Information

3A** and 3B** - Personal name/Organization Name. Again, as with Section 2A and 2B, complete one or the other, but not both. Here we are listing the person or entity that owns the copyright—either the developer who created it, or the person or organization to which the copyright has been transferred by an author or other authorized copyright owner.

3C- Doing business as. You can leave this blank unless you've transferred software application ownership to a company using a DBA.

3D - Address, email, and phone. The claimant postal address will be made part of the online public Copyright records and cannot be removed later. However, the email address and phone number will not appear in the public record unless it is also included in section 5, Rights and Permissions Contact.

3E – Copyright ownership acquired by. If the claimant (the person claiming copyright ownership) is the same person as the author of the software application, skip this line. Transfer information is required if the claimant is not an author but has obtained ownership of the copyright from the author or another owner. In that case, check the appropriate box to indicate how ownership was acquired. When you check "Written agreement" that includes a transfer by assignment or by contract. "Will or inheritance" applies only if the person from whom copyright was transferred is deceased. If necessary, check "other" and give a brief statement indicating how copyright was transferred.

Section 4 - Limitation of Copyright Claim

Because many software programs are derived from some other source, it's possible you will need to complete this section. Here is where you disclose whether the work contains or is based on previously registered or previously published material, material in the public domain, or material not owned by this copyright claimant. The purpose of section 4 is to exclude that material from the claim and identify the new material upon which the present claim is based.

4A – Material excluded from this claim. Check the appropriate box or boxes to exclude any previously registered or previously published material, material in the public domain, or material not owned by this claimant. For example, if you were registering a software program that contains a public domain image of Charles Dickens, you would enter "public domain image of Charles Dickens" in the "Other" box.

4B – Previous registration. If the software application for which you are now seeking registration, or an earlier version of it, has been registered, give the registration number and the year of registration. If there have been multiple registrations, you may give information regarding the last two. If you are registering the first published version of a software application that is identical to a previously registered unpublished version (contains no new material not already registered), check the "other" box in line 4a and state "First publication of work registered as unpublished." In this case, skip line 4c.

4C - New material included in this claim. Check the appropriate box or boxes to identify the new material you are claiming in this registration. Again, you are only filling in this section if your work contains material by someone else. In section 4C, your goal is to indicate what you contributed. Give a brief statement on the line after "other" if it is necessary to give a more specific description of the new material included in this claim or if none of the check boxes applies.

The Compilation box. A compilation is a collection of material—for example, a software program titled "10 Best Mac Tools"—in which someone assembled, selected or organized the preexisting programs into one jumbo software program without transforming any of them. The author of a compilation seeks to protect the collection, not the individual works. A collection of your software applications is usually not a compilation, because you're seeking to protect all of the individual works, not the manner in which they are arranged or selected. A claim in "compilation" does not include the material that has been compiled. If that material should also be included in the claim, check the appropriate additional boxes.

If you regularly create new versions of your software you can file new applications for each, being careful to indicate the previous versions in Section 4. You're probably best off only bothering with applications for major revisions.

Section 5 - Rights and Permissions

Form CO asks for a listing of the person to contact for permission to use the material. If this is the same as the copyright claimant, you can simply check the box and the information will be generated to complete this section. Again, all the information given in this section, including name, postal address, email address, and phone number, will be made part of the online records produced by the Copyright Office and cannot be removed later from those public records.

Section 6 - Correspondence Contact

This is the person in your band that the Copyright Office should contact with any questions about this application. If this is the same as the first copyright claimant or the rights and permissions contact, simply check the appropriate box. (Information given only in this space will not appear in the online public record.)

Section 7 - Mail Certificate To

This is the person to whom the registration certificate should be mailed. If this is the same as the first copyright claimant, the rights and permissions contact, or the correspondence contact, simply check the appropriate box. (Information given only in this space will not appear in the online public record.)

Section 8 - Certification

8A* - Handwritten signature. After you print out the completed application, be sure to sign it.

8B* - Printed name. Enter the name of the person who will sign the form.

8C*- Date signed. Choose "today's date" or "write date by hand." In the latter case, be sure to date the application by hand when you sign it. If your application gives a date of publication, do not certify using a date prior to the publication date.

8D - Deposit account. Leave this line blank unless you have a Copyright Office deposit account and are charging the filing fee to that account.

8E - Applicant's internal tracking number. If you have an internal tracking number, enter it here.

Mailing Your Application

Once you complete the form, you must mail the completed application, your $50 fee (payable to the Register of Copyrights), and your deposit materials (see below) Send all three elements of your software application copyright application in the same envelope or package to:

Library of Congress

Copyright Office

101 Independence Avenue, SE

Washington, DC 20559-6233

Deposit Materials for Software Applications

Here's where things can get a little murky. If you're willing to file a copy of the source code with your application, then your copyright will extend to all manifestations of that source code—that is if the source identifies (or shows) your screen shots, then the screen shots will be included in the copyright. Some developers are not comfortable with furnishing all of the source code and prefer to file portions of the object code – that is the binary file (or in Java, the byte code). If that's the case, we recommend reading Copyright Circular 61: Copyright Registration for Computer Programs as that document explains your choices.

Need help? The Copyright Office has done a nice job of explaining the process and making it user-friendly with a tutorial and FAQs. The eCO process is peppered with helpful drop down menus, as well as hypertext links that provide pop-up explanations for each aspect of the application process. The explanations for paper forms provided earlier in this section should aid you answering the online interview—for example, how to respond to questions regarding the nature of work, title, date of publication, etc.

You can expedite your filing. For an expedited handling fee of $805 ($760 plus the $50 filing fee – check current fees), the Copyright Office will process an application within five working days. You cannot choose this service for mere reasons of convenience; it is only allowed in urgent cases. Examples of an urgent need include: upcoming litigation, a pending customs matter, a looming contractual or a publishing deadline. You can request it using the form "Request for Special Handling," included in Copyright Circular 10.

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