Guide to Obtaining & Receiving Copyright Protection
This guide is part of our larger Guide to Laws about Creative, Artistic, and Business Work Product and Content in the United States (Copyright and other laws)
How do I obtain copyright rights to my work?
Copyright protection is not all or nothing, protected or not protected. There are various degrees of copyright protection, such as whether it is easier or harder to sue someone for copyright infringement, and how much money you could win for an infringement claim.
For most work you create, you own the copyrights automatically as soon as you create it in a fixed form (such as typing, writing or recording it), and nobody else can copy your work without your permission. It doesn’t even need to be published, and you don’t even need to register with the U.S. Copyright Office. This is the “base level” of protection. Ways to increase your copyright protection include:
- put a copyright notice on the work using © (c in a circle) (see below)
- registering with the U.S. Copyright Office
Should I register my work with the U.S. Copyright Office?
It’s not strictly required. But there many advantages to registering a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, in particular:
- you could probably get more money when you sue for copyright infringement
- you gain very strong evidence that you own the copyright in case you need to sue for copyright infringement
Although you may register your work at any point, to get the two advantages listed above, you must register within 3 months of publication of the work (or prior to an infringement) for the first, and within 5 years of publication for the second advantage.
How much does it cost to register a copyright?
The filing fee is $35 to register ONE work, NOT “made for hire” (see below), and you are the only author and claimant.
Otherwise, the filing fee is $55 for basic claims, including group works (see below).
How do I add a copyright notice to my work? What does © (the letter C in a circle) mean?
The © symbol gives others notice that you, the (presumably) copyright holder intend to protect your copyright.
Whether you register or not, you can use this symbol to let people know you intend to protect your work (though it isn’t strictly necessary). Just put it in the form of © [year first published] [your name], All Rights Reserved.
Example: © 2020 Jane Doe, All Rights Reserved.
For music, see specifics here.
Can I register a group of works in one registration application?
Yes, there are a few options depending on what type of work it is.
- Unpublished works: For most works, you can register up to 10 unpublished works in a group registration, aka GRUW (group registration for unpublished works).
- Photography: You may also register up to 750 photographs (published or unpublished) in one registration.
- Jewelry: You may register a jewelry collection in one registration.
- Music album
- Published works: You may also register certain groups of published works:
- Up to 3 months of issues from the same serial publication
- Up to 1 month of issues from the same newspaper or newsletter (regardless of whether the issues are published daily, weekly, bi-weekly, etc.)
- A group of contributions published in periodicals
- At least 2 and up to 50 short online literary works (A short online literary work contains 50 to 17,500 words, and is first published as part of a website or online platform, including online newspapers, blogs, social media websites, and social networking platforms. Examples of short online literary works include poems, short stories, articles, essays, columns, blog posts or entries, and social media posts.)
If you don’t meet any of these categories, an alternative is to compile works together to form a single work. However, it may not provide sufficient protection. See “What is a Collective Work” below.
How do I know if my work is published or not?
The Copyright Act defines “publication” as distributing copies of the work to the public, or offering the work to be distributed to the public. The “to the public” requirement is often the key to determining whether a work has been published. Sharing a manuscript with family and friends will generally not constitute publication; posting it on a public blog likely would constitute publication.
What is a collective work?
A collective work or compilation is when a number of separate and independent contributions are assembled into a collective whole. For example, you could create a book of various illustrations, and then just register the book in a single application.
A collective work is considered one work for purposes of registration. A registration for a collective work covers the copyrightable authorship in the selection, coordination, or arrangement of the work. A registration for a collective work covers the collective work as a whole and may cover the individual works contained in it if (1) the collective work and the individual works are owned by the same party, (2) the individual works have not been previously published or previously registered, and (3) the individual works are not in the public domain.