Protecting creative material has always been a challenge. It’s worse now because it’s so easy to download, reproduce or otherwise appropriate someone else’s work. So how can you protect what’s yours?
The good news is that if it’s a literary, audio, visual, performance, artistic, photographic or architectural work, it is protected by copyright laws. And copyrights can be registered with the Library of Congress relatively easily for a small fee, either online or by mail.
There is often confusion between the terms copyright protection and copyright registration, which are not the same. Since the terms are often used interchangeably, let’s be clear about the difference.
At its most basic, this is your ownership interest in the work that you’ve created. It exists from the point that you author the “work,” as it is known in copyright parlance. This gives you certain exclusive rights.
For instance, you may:
• Reproduce the work
• Alter the work to create derivative works from it
• Transfer the ownership
• Perform the work
• Sell copies of the work
Copyright protection doesn’t last forever, but it does last a long time. For works created after January 1, 1978, it is generally the author’s life plus 70 years after death.
The only problem is that while your original work is copyright protected from the minute you create it, you’ll have a hard time proving that unless you’ve registered it with the Library of Congress.
If you are the owner of the work, you can register it. This is a formal way to declare that the work is yours. Registration is not necessary to secure a copyright. However, registration creates a public record and can be used as evidence to show your authorship.
There are three ways to register a copyright:
1. The easiest and most cost-effective way to register is on the US Copyright Office’s website .The advantages of using this online process (known as eCo) are lower fees, the ability to track the progress of your application online and faster processing time overall.
2. If you’re computer friendly, but don’t want to actually register using eCo, you can fill out the form online, print it and file by snail mail. Your printed form will include a barcode to help speed the process along. Find the form and instructions here: http://www.copyright.gov/forms/
3. You can fill out a paper form by hand and snail mail it in. To do so, you must contact the copyright office and ask them to mail the form to you. This option takes the longest.
Whichever way you choose, note that one size does not fit all with the Copyright Office; different types of work require different forms, so take care when choosing the one to use.
A Couple of Caveats
If you created the work in the course of your employment (“work made for hire”) or were commissioned to produce it for someone else, you may not be the author under law. So be sure you have the right to the work before you register it.
For more information on this subject, check out the copyright office website www.copyright.gov. There’s a wealth of downloadable information and you’ll be able to find out about fees and how to use the eCo system.
Copyright issues can be complex, so if you need more assistance, seek the services of an attorney specializing in Intellectual Property and Copyright issues. This is a highly specialized area of law, so you’ll want the services of an expert who is well versed in it.