Legal Issues

Checked Your Copyright Lately?

Have you checked your copyright lately? I mean, have you actually gone to the US Copyright Office website and searched for your registration? You might be surprised at what you won’t find. Here is the link to start your search.

Most publishing contracts have a clause that requires the publisher to register the copyright, in the name of the author, with the US Copyright Office. This is supposed to be done as part of the in-house paperwork process. In addition, indie authors tend to forget this step to protect their work.

If you do not find your book, don’t panic.

I repeat. If you do not find your book title, don’t panic. The copyright law is very specific that your work is still protected by the law. However, having it officially registered guarantees your protection. If someone steals your story, your characters, etc., you have to be able to prove when you wrote it originally. That provenance is the key to your protection of your intellectual property.

If you are a published author and you do not find your work registered, contact your publisher in a kind voice and request that they comply with the requirements of your contract on this issue. Some may even have a copy of the certificate of registration on file that they can send you.

Don’t assume, if you can’t find it online, that your publisher failed. It may be that you didn’t do the search correctly. (Never underestimate the power of user error.) Or maybe the title or your name was misspelled in the registration process. That is why it is important to stay calm and make a reasonable request for help from your publisher. Your agent cannot do this for you since you are the copyright holder; the agent is not.

So, if copyright is automatic upon creation, then why check for your registration? The government’s site FAQ has some great answers to that question:

  • Copyright registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim.
  • Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, copyright registration is necessary for works of US origin.
  • If made before or within five years of publication, copyright registration will establish prima facie evidence in court of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the certificate.
  • If copyright registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.
  • Copyright registration allows the owner of the copyright to record the registration with the US Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies.

In the past I made the mistake of telling people that you can just mail yourself a copy of your manuscript (and not open it) to let the postmark be “evidence” of the date of creation. This is also known as “poor man’s copyright.” Unfortunately, there is nothing in the law that says this is sufficient. Use the online registration service and pay the $35 fee if you wish to register your material yourself.

By the way, try not to be tempted to copyright your work before sending it to agents or showing it to editors. This could create some duplication of records if the book is traditionally published. For a more complete understanding, take Sally Stuart’s class for only $6 at The Christian Writers Institute (course link here).

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