How to File a Copyright

In the United States, the copyright law protects your work of authorship from being infringed upon.  Whether you have a book, photography, painting, song, or anything else creative in nature, a copyright can protect its legal usage.  U.S. law grants you five years from the day of public usage for filing a copyright.  After five years has passed and your work has not been copyrighted, the work passes into public domain, meaning anyone can use it without having to seek any permission or pay any fees.

The steps to obtaining a copyright are relatively easy.  While many services exist that can do all of the legwork for you in obtaining a copyright, you can file your own copyright at a much lower price and without much hassle.

To register a work, you submit:

1.     an application form

2.     non-refundable filing fee ($35 online, $50 with Form CO)

3.     non-returnable copy/copies of the work

These three things are all you need to get started filing your copyright.

Applying and paying online is the most advantageous route to take.  There’s a lower filing fee, you can track the status of your application online, and the process is faster on the whole when compared to mailing in the Copyright Office form.

Application Form

An online application form can be found here.  On this page, you will find all the different forms you need to file your copyright: literary, visual arts, performing arts, sound recordings, single series, and continuation sheets.  All of these forms are straightforward, easy-to-understand documents.

Generally, these forms ask for information about you and about the work.  You will have to include titles, publication information, dates of completion, and other information about the work.  Each form is preceded by detailed descriptions of each section found within the form.

Non-refundable Filing Fee

When you submit your application form, you will also send a non-refundable filing fee.  The fee for registering online is $35, and is payable by credit or debit card, electronic check, or Copyright Office deposit account.  Paying the fee online is the most convenient and cheapest way to pay.

If you choose to pay with a paper registration form, the fee is $65 and is payable by check or money order.  Because there is more labor involved in processing paper forms than processing electronic forms, the fees are higher.

For a complete, detailed list of fees, view the Copyright Office page on fees here.

Non-returnable Copy/Copies of Work

When you register your work, you are required to send in a non-returnable copy of your work.  When registering online, this copy can simply be attached.  For example, if you are registering a literary work, you can attach a document; if you are registering a sound recording, you can send in the music files.

If you do send in a hard copy of your work, note that it will not be returned to you.  Also, even if you submit your work electronically to obtain the copyright, the Library of Congress requires a “best edition” hard-copy version of your work   The Library of Congress defines what is meant by “best edition” in this document.  This page covers more details about the requirements attached to filing a hard copy/best edition of your work with the Library of Congress.

Other Information

The length of time it takes for your copyright to be processed varies depending upon the amount of copyright filings the office has on hand for processing.  The average amount of time it takes for an electronically-filed copyright is three months.  The average amount of time it takes for a paper-filed copyright is ten months.  Part of the delay related to paper filings is due to the severe delay in mail service to Capitol Hill.  Because all mail must be thoroughly examined, mail backs up and the process can be quite slow.

If your application is complete and meets all standards, you do not need to wait until you receive the certificate in order to proceed with publication.  Your work is copyrighted effective the day the application, payment, and copy of the work are received by the Copyright Office.

Once your work is copyrighted, how long does the copyright last?  For nearly all forms of work, a copyright on a work that was created after January 1, 1978 will last from the moment of creation, through the author’s life, and then on for an additional 70 years.  This policy ensues that the author’s future generations can enjoy the benefits of the work, but it will not be outside of the public domain forever.

Copyrighting your work is a smart move.  Your creative work can potentially be one of your most valuable assets.  Controlling how others use your creative work can give you a stream of income you would not be able to tap into without a copyright.  As the United States government recognized-owner of your work, you can decide if and how you want to charge people who want to use your work for their own monetary gain.

For more information on the process of filing a copyright, visit the United States Copyright Office website.  The site also provides a thorough FAQ section that answers all questions users may have before, during, and after the filing process.  The FAQ section also answers many questions about what can and what cannot be copyrighted.

You can also search records of existing copyrights at the Copyright Office website.

As a final note, the myth that you can send yourself a copy of your work through the mail, and thereby copyright it with a government-issued postage cancellation mark is false.  This form of “copyrighting” is in no way recognized by the Copyright Office or the court system.  The only way to officially copyright your work is by applying with the Copyright Office directly.

Get started filing your copyright today to protect your work and your financial interests!

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