Should I Copyright My Writing or Artwork?

When should you, as an artist, writer, or other type of creator, consider registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office?

By , Attorney · Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

Creative professionals like artists, writers, and filmmakers make their living from their creative work. But are you worried that your creative work might be stolen by a third party? If so, copyright registration might be a smart legal tool with which to offer your work some intellectual property protection.

What Is Copyright Protection?

In the United States, creators of original works are granted copyright protection through the Copyright Act of 1976. Specifically, 17 U.S. Code § 106 grants creators certain exclusive rights to their work, including the right to reproduce, perform, and distribute the work.

What does this mean in practice? If you hold the copyright on your painting, for example, then a nefarious third party cannot simply photocopy your painting and sell posters of it without your permission. This sort of conduct would constitute copyright infringement and subject the infringer to damages.

Interestingly, copyright can attach to many types of creative works, such as paintings, photographs, architecture, sculpture, music, lyrics, sculpture, and software code. In some cases, it can even cover performance arts like dance and yoga.

Limits on Copyrighting Your Creative Work

Copyright law has many complexities. For example, you might not be permitted to obtain a copyright in a creative work that you yourself created if you did so "for hire." For instance, if you work as a graphic designer at an advertising agency, you are unlikely to be able to copyright the ads that you design. Rather, the copyright protection will accrue to your employer. Learn more about ownership of copyrights.

Benefits of Registering Your Creative Work

If you believe that you are entitled to a copyright for the creation of a work, then you might consider registering that work. Copyrights are registered and maintained by the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, DC. Registration has a number of benefits. First, the law requires that you have a registration on your work filed with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to sue someone for infringement. Put differently, you cannot march into court and file a lawsuit seeking to protect a nonregistered creative work.

Second, copyright registration allows you to put the well-known "©" symbol on your work. This copyright symbol will immediately scare away many potential infringers, who see that you are taking your intellectual property rights seriously. (They may think twice about infringing, in other words, if they believe that they might be sued.)

How Do I Register My Creative Work?

Copyright registration is not terribly complicated. The Copyright Office makes registration fairly easy, so that most creators do not need to hire an attorney to secure their registration.

How do you begin the process? Simply go to the Registration Portal of the Copyright Office's website. It allows you to select the specific type of creative work you seek to register, with such choices as literary works, visual arts, photographs, or performance. The registration process is slightly different for each of these genres, but the basic principles are the same.

Each of the portals on the website will lead you to the Electronic Copyright Office (known as "ECO" for short). In ECO, you will fill out the formal copyright application. Most of the required information is self explanatory. You will need to provide your name, address, and information about the work, as well as a copy of the work itself (perhaps on CD or DVD).

Note that the work does not need to be published in order for you to obtain copyright protection.

Still have questions? Read the helpful FAQs on the website; if you have additional questions, you can also call the clerks at the Copyright Office at 202-707–3000.

Be aware that copyright filings are not free. You must pay fees to the Copyright Office for each registration, according to the published fee schedule. Fortunately, these fees are relatively nominal. Most applications will cost less than $100 in total (note that fees will change annually).

In short, copyright registration is a relatively straightforward and inexpensive process that makes sense for many artists and authors.

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