To determine this, let’s first look at what the US Copyright Office says a copyright actually is: “Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.” (retrieved November 26, 2006 from: http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#protect)
Now, there are two main types of copyrights: registered and non-registered. Let’s look at the differences between the two.
A non-registered copyright is automatically granted to the author or creator of any original work the instant that work is put in tangible form. In other words, as soon as you have created the work, in a tangible form (such as an article, novel, manuscript, picture, etc).If you created an original work, you automatically hold a copyright on the work.
In fact, the work doesn’t even have to be complete in order to be protected under a non-registered copyright. For example, if you are writing an article and you have five paragraphs written, but the article will be ten paragraphs long, as soon as you finish each word, each paragraph, that part of the article is protected already under a non-registered copyright. Same with a novel, manuscript, or other type of unfinished work. Photographs are copyrighted the minute the photo is snapped, and therefore on the film, and then any print or copy of it is also copyright protected under a non-registered copyright.
Now, ideas cannot be copyrighted, either registered or non-registered. For example, if you have a concept for a novel, the outline for the novel is not copyright protected. The idea for the plot or storyline is not copyrighted. For articles, the idea of an article topic cannot be copyrighted. For photography, the scene or the set up idea of how to take the photo, how to pose a subject, etc cannot be copyrighted. Only the work itself is able to have an automatic non-registered copyright protection.
So if a non-registered copyright is automatically granted to any tangible work created like this, why bother with registering a copyright?
According to the US Copyright Office, “Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within 5 years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.” (Retrieved November 26, 2006 from: http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#protect)
So essentially, registering a copyright with the US Copyright Office provides a public record of the actual work, making it known to the public that you created it. Additionally, copyright registration allows you to seek statutory damages in court should someone steal your work and claim it as their own. It should be understand that actual damages can be award with or without copyright registration, but registration is required for statutory damages. Copyright registration also protects against importation internationally of copyrighted works.
Copyright registration current costs about $45 for everything except periodicals and serials. This is a one time fee that secures a copyright registration on the work submitted, exactly as it is submitted.
Only you can decide if registering a copyright is worth the expense and time to do so. Personally, I don’t register a copyright on any of my articles, but I do on all of my books and manuscripts. For poetry, I typically compile my poetry into a volume of sorts, and register the copyright for the entire volume, which does indeed protect my poetry from being stolen and used without permission, but doesn’t individually copyright each poem.
Be careful of agencies like this one: http://www.gocopyright.com/ that offer to register your copyright for you. Technically, these sites are not scam sites, in that they actually do provide a service, but they charge you a fee to do something that you can very easily do yourself. To register a copyright, you simply need to fill out the form and return it with your $45 fee. There is no need to pay anyone else additional fees to do this for you.
The choice to register the copyright or not is up to you. If you plan to send your work to a large group of people, such as via the internet, to agents or publishers, or posting excerpts online for others to review or read, you might want to consider securing a copyright registration prior to doing so. Most agents and publishers are reputable, if you do your homework, and you don’t really need to register your work for copyright protection before sending to them. In fact, should your manuscript be picked up for publishing, chances are the publisher will foot the bill for the copyright registration as part of the publishing process. It’s definitely worth asking when a publishing contract offer is made whether it will include registration or not.
In the end, it’s really all a matter of what you intend to do with the work you have created and how much exposure you believe that work will gain. Copyrighting articles for internet use is probably not cost effective, and the standard automatic non-registered copyright should be enough. Of course, the converse side of this is that you also have a larger burden of proof if someone steals your works in order to prove you were the original author if you do not register a copyright on your articles. For larger or longer works that may receive more exposure or will be found in print, registering copyright protection makes perfect sense.
Keep in mind that you should if you are a writer read the terms and conditions of blog sites you may post at carefully. Several blog sites have you waiving your copyright and assigning it to the blog site as soon as you have posted the item. Sites that do this, please be careful not to post any poetry, articles, or other things you may be using elsewhere, because you may actually find you don’t have the legal right to do that if the item is also posted on a blog post of a site that asks you to assign copyright to the site. Be very careful with your copyrights of your tangible writings, because it is very easy to discover you have inadvertently assigned your copyright to someone else, making it impossible for you to use that piece elsewhere.
One last word about copyright protection if you use a pen name, or a pseudonym, you need to know that the use of this fictitious name does actually affect your copyright. When you register your copyright with the US Copyright Office, you have two choices if you have used a pen name to write the works.
1) You can register the copyright under your real name. The example the US Copyright Office gives is: example: “Judith Barton whose pseudonym is Madeline Elster”
Doing this will reveal your real identity should anyone search through the copyright records.
2) You can register the copyright under your pen name, as though it were your real name. This is used by people who don’t want the real identity revealed in the records of the copyright office.
According to the US Copyright Office, using a penname changes the copyright term as follows: “If the author is not identified in the records of the Copyright Office, the term of copyright is 95 years from publication of the work, or 120 years from its creation, whichever term expires first. If the author’s identity is later revealed in the records of the Copyright Office, the copyright term then becomes the author’s life plus 70 years.”
It is rare for most smaller articles or web content to have to fight a copyright infringement in court. Most of the time, the person who plagiarized or stole the work knows it is stolen and will usually remove the references to your work or the stolen work from publication immediately when they are caught and asked to do so. Most copyright infringement cases involve longer works, screenplays, or novels where someone has received considerable monetary payments from the work, and someone else is claiming the work was not theirs to begin with.
Copyright infringement does happen. Some courts have upheld verdicts based on the creation date of the document on the computer, but that’s no guarantee. Truth is, the best you can do when your copyright has been infringed upon is simply ask the person who stole the works to stop using it. If it’s posted online, and they do not comply, find out who hosts their site and ask the host to remove under the US Copyright Law. Most of the time, this is enough for smaller works posted on the internet.
As for the poor man’s copyrightit’s a common belief that you can create a poor man’s copyright’ by sealing and mailing your hard copy of your writing to yourself. Some judges may accept this as proof of date of creation and some may not, but the point here is, it still doesn’t allow you to seek certain statutory damages in court if the copyright is not registered and is instead a poor man’s copyright.
Your best bet is to determine how profitable you expect the tangible item you created to be in the future. Some authors actually compile all of their articles into one document and will register the document at the end of each year. Again, this provides no registration of the articles individually, but it does secure you as the original author of the work. This is especially important in the internet age when a lot things are copied and pasted on the internet. However, copyright registering everything you write at $45.00 per registration is probably not feasible for article and web writers.
Michelle L. Devon is a freelance writer and editor, providing services through her company, Accentuate Services, where we help you ACCENTUATE your writing. For more information, hints and tips for writers, links to paying writer’s jobs, or for a free quote for services, please visit her company’s website at