A Successful Creative Career Comes From Copyright Registration - Creative Law Center

A Successful Creative Career Comes From Copyright Registration

Creative professionals are often told that infringement is not the problem facing a successful creative career, rather the real problem is visibility. Without the work getting “out there,” getting seen and reviewed, an author or creator doesn’t make sales and won’t make a living.

So you work hard for visibility by marketing your work and building an audience. At some point, your persistent efforts will reach critical mass and you start attracting attention for your work. Attention that can translate into revenue.

A Creative Career Grows Organically if You Plan for It

You can never really be sure which of your creations is going to take off and enjoy popular success. You might think the first book in your series is your best work, the better story. Or perhaps you believe in the highly stylized image you spent most of last summer finishing. But it turns out that it’s the third book in the series that has fired your readers’ imaginations and, really, it was that sketch you made at breakfast with your niece that has caught the attention of the internet.

Then, just when you start to get significant sales traction on your book, registrations for your online course, sales of your freshly designed product, or momentum for your art, you see illegal copies pop up on pirate sites with free download buttons, knocked off on Amazon, or incorporated into the work of others who are selling it without your permission.

Maybe you’ve been given credit for your original work. But even if there is attribution for the use of your work (which there rarely is), without revenue flowing to you . . . well, attribution doesn’t pay the rent.

At this point you realize that you need to decide how to begin protecting your work and whether to start the process of enforcing your rights. Part of you says, “Why bother. It’s pointless. Pirates are everywhere. It’s like playing whack-a-mole.” But another part of you says, “No. I’m not going to stand for this. It’s my work. I should be the one who earns the money from it.”

But a course of action just doesn’t seem clear.

This is the frustrating experience of far too many creative entrepreneurs, writers, and artists who have built a following gathering customers, fans, readers, likes, shares, and sales only to have their hard work undermined by copyists who prevent them from making a living from their work.

The fact is, you can and should begin the protection process as part of the creation process before your marketing even starts. Then you will already have the tools in place when it comes time to enforce your rights and control your income streams.

Without a Protection Plan, Enforcing Your Rights Can Be Overwhelming

The problem is you don’t have a plan in place for what to do and how to do it when your work is taken.

Not having a plan to protect your creative work is like investing in a multi-million dollar quarterback and having a Pop Warner offensive line to protect him. Or, if football analogies don’t resonate with you . . . it’s like buying a vintage Aston Martin and not having comprehensive insurance coverage.

At some point, the opposing team’s middle linebacker is going to come through that line and crush your Golden Arm. Or a hail storm is going to burst through the clouds and pummel that car to a dull, pock-marked finish. Investment gone.

Without a plan to protect your work, the value of your art will disappear with the person who takes it.

If It’s Worth Creating, It’s Worth Protecting

Many writers and artists simply don’t know how to develop a protection plan for their work. Others have decided that protection techniques are inefficient or ineffective.

Throwing in the towel on protecting your work makes no sense. It was worth creating, it must be worth protecting. Especially when federal protection is relatively simple (compared to creation of the work itself) and inexpensive. And now with the passage of the CASE Act, enforcement of your rights has become simpler and less expensive.

While there may be conflicting opinions on aggressive enforcement methods, there is little dispute that a federal registration is the primary ingredient for protecting a body of creative work. If you do not have that registration, you cannot have a meaningful protection plan of any sort.

Without that registration, trying to enforce your rights is not just a challenge, it can be impossible.

Build Protection into Your Workflow

Create. Publish. Apply. It’s that simple.

Create your work.

Publish it to your audience. Publish in the copyright sense means to make the work available for sale or further distribution to the public.

Apply for copyright registration. A timely copyright application is one which is submitted within three months of publication of the work. Don’t wait until the last minute. Think of the application as being as important as uploading your book to Kindle, adding a product to your store, or making your images available for sale in the art market. Your work isn't finished until the application is filed.

creative career success

After you’ve completed the copyright application, you will receive two emails from the Copyright Office — one confirming the completed application and acknowledging receipt of the filing fee (from $45) and one confirming the upload of your deposit copy. Save them all as PDFs until you get the registration certificate. They can be used for enforcement as evidence of registration.

The Benefits of Being Prepared with a Federal Registration

If you have registered your work in a timely manner and somebody copies it illegally, you can sue them and possibly recover your attorneys’ fees and statutory damages (up to $150,000 per infringement). If you’ve planned ahead and registered the copyright as part of your workflow before infringement takes place, you’re more likely to find a lawyer willing to take your case. This is the benefit most lawyers mention when discussing federal registration.

It may be that the idea of bringing and possibly financing a federal lawsuit for copyright infringement is alien to you. (Although now, with the CASE Act, ridiculously expensive federal litigation is not the only option.) The question becomes—if you’re not going to litigate, just how useful is a copyright registration on your work?

In reality, it is hard to know what action you might want to take in the future if your work is infringed and your creative career is threatened. You can’t predict who might take your work, how they might use it, and whether you will want to stop them. This is especially true given the length of a copyright term. Without the registration, you’ve limited your options before you’ve had the chance to make a choice.

A copyright registration is evidence of ownership and originality. It eliminates the need to prove those two elements if you do choose to take an enforcement action.

The ability to enforce and possibly litigate is not the only reason to apply for copyright registration on your work.

Copyright registration improves a creator’s ability to control the reproduction, sale, and licensing of his work. A single piece of creative work can be used to generate multiple income streams. A novel can be published as a book, serialized, licensed as a film or turned into a television series, for example. The rights that separate into those revenue streams are secured by a copyright registration. The Copyright Office can be used as a repository for assignment of those rights and as a means of locating the individual responsible for negotiating those rights for a particular property. The same is true for registrations of visual arts. None of those things has anything to do with litigation and each is a benefit of having a federal copyright registration.

A copyright registration turns intangible intellectual property rights into something tangible—the expression of an idea in your work becomes a piece of paper that serves as a record of ownership. Something that can be put into a safe deposit box to secure an inheritance of those revenue streams under a will. Just like personal property, the intellectual property embodied in a copyright registration can be bequeathed to your heirs.

Registration is Not Just For U.S. Citizens

If you are a citizen or resident of a country that is a signatory to the Berne Convention and you sell your work in the US, then you can register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office and gain the all of the benefits offered by U.S. Copyright law. Also, if your work is first published in the U.S. or in a Berne Convention country regardless of your citizenship, it can be registered with the Copyright Office and benefit from the protections offered by U.S. Copyright law. Simply put, any work that is protected by U.S. Copyright law can be registered with the Copyright Office.

So, let me ask you—doesn’t it make sense to build your creative career on a solid foundation? Take the first step in protecting your work by applying for federal copyright registration.

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About the Author

Kathryn Goldman helps small business people, writers, artists, and creative professionals make a living from their creative work by teaching them how to protect and enforce their rights. She is an attorney who writes these posts to help you be more thoughtful about intellectual property and the law as you build your business, write your stories, and create your art.

  • I have books published traditionally in both Canada and the United States (among other countries). The copyright was registered separately by the different publishers in all countries. Now that the English language rights have reverted for all my books, I want to publish them electronically myself (as I always reserved that right in all my contracts.) What do I do about copyright? Thank you so much.

    • Welwyn,
      It is the practice of most traditional publishers to apply for copyright registration in the name of the author. Although a publishing contract licenses the bundle of rights in copyright, the ownership of the copyright stays with the author. I just ran a search on your name in the Copyright database and three titles appeared. What you might want to think about doing is filing a Supplementary Registration changing the contact person for rights & permissions. If someone is interested in licensing your work for other uses, you don’t want them going back to the original publishers. You’ll want to handle that yourself or have someone handle that on your behalf who is working in your interest.

      • Hmm, only three? Should be more. Can I copyright the missing titles in the USA now? Thank you so much for this information.

  • Hello, It’s my first time doing registration of groups of photos with the Library of Congress US Copyrights.
    I want to spend as little as possible to register several thousands of photos taken in several years, at the moment still unpublished.
    My idea to do so, is to publish them all together in one day online, so that after I can register them paying one single fee as a group registration of published images.
    I know that it is possible to register images as unpublished within three months of publication. But what if I want to register them as published (not unpublished) within those three months, is it possible?
    In example, today I upload them online to make them published, and tomorrow I do the registration, can I register them as published, or should I wait for 3 months to pass?
    Thank you for the help

    • Davide,

      There are special rules for registering photographs that make the process more manageable and economical. You can register up to 750 photographs published in the same calendar year using Form GR/PPh/CON (this form cannot be completed online, you must use a paper application).

      If the photos are unpublished, there is no limit on how many you may register together as a collection. You can file an application for an unpublished collection online. Make sure to add a note to the Copyright Office telling them it is an unpublished collection (there’s a place for notes in the online application).


  • JOYCE DADE says:

    Great information and I am very grateful to have read it, thank you. I have a question about the expense of copyrighting material. The $35 fee mentioned is one thing but how many works will that cover? I read somewhere on the government website that 200 digital files for example can be registered at the same time. Is that true or does one have to take out a $35 application each time a series or single digital file for example is brought into the public arena? I appreciate any further information you may provide. Thank you.

    • Joyce,

      Literary works published on the same date can be published with one application (and one fee). Unpublished literary works can be published as a collection with one application (and one fee). Up to 750 photographs can be published with one application using form GR/PPh/CON if they were all taken in the same year.

      But authors whose books come out in a series over time are going to have to file a separate application for each book.


  • i-reg-my-artworks says:

    Kathryn replied to Kelly Abell’s re-blogging request:

    “I would be happy to have you select a quote from the post and provide a link back from your site.”

    I like to make things super clear. If I was authoring this site, I would include my copyright attribution, contact web and/or social media sites, AND a two/three-line licensing statement at the end of each of my posts, stating the boundaries of how visitors can use (re-post, link, etc.) my content.

    Kathryn wrote, “After you’ve completed the copyright application, you will receive three emails — one confirming the completed application, one acknowledging receipt of the filing fee (from $35) and one confirming the upload of your deposit copy. Save them all as PDFs until you get the registration certificate. They can be used for enforcement as evidence of registration.”

    My best practice is to store EVERYTHING I send to or receive from the US Copyright Office forever, even after I’ve received my Certificate of Registration! All this detailed, robust record-keeping really shows my due-diligence to the infringer’s attorney and the court/jury. In fact, your copyright litigator will love you for keeping such meticulous paperwork.

    Other than my comments, Kathryn’s post says it all, really, really well!

    • Both excellent points. I will tend to the first one myself.

      One more thing about record-keeping — make sure to retain the original version of the work you use as a deposit copy in a way that you can easily associate it with the application. This can be particularly challenging for photographers.

  • Monica says:

    I have read on several art business blogs/web sites that one should set up an account [free!] with the copyright office. I have searched the US copyright site and don’t see an option that looks like that. Is that something that can be done?

    Would you consider doing a step by step tutorial? Or you tube video walking us through the steps?

    • Monica,

      I have just finished a step-by-step video tutorial. You can find it here: Copyright Application for Literary Works. In it, I show you where to set up your free account on copyright.gov. It’s a little hard to find.


      • Monica Kelly says:

        Would it be the same process for visual art?

        • The copyright registration for visual art is similar but a different form is used. I’m working on a tutorial for visual art and should have it ready by the end of May.

  • Thank you Kathryn, the information you send is good to know. Being in business for such a long time we have never paid much attention to people ripping off our designs. You have give me a lot of new information on how to protect our designs.

  • Thanks for this information, Kathryn.

    As far as registering photos, is there a bulk fee for them, or is it $35/photo?

    • Allan,

      There are special rules for registering photographs. A group of up to 750 photographs published in the same year can be registered as a group using Form VA and Form GR/PPh/CON for a single fee of $65. This a great benefit for photographers. Thanks for the question.


  • Kathryn, thanks so much for a clear discussion on copyright registration. You sold me.

    • You’re welcome Peter. And well, phew. *mops sweat from brow* I was worried I didn’t get my point across.

  • Thom Reece says:

    Important article, Kathryn… and very timely.

    Only a few days ago I responded to an appeal for help on one of my Google+ subscribers who was going through the personal violation of having her book ripped off and did not know what to do. Several other respondents on list were also mentioning the importance of registering everything they produce… before submitting for publication.

    With the dramatic growth in self-publishing this issue is surfacing more every day. Inexperienced authors/publishers forget they have to put on their business hat along with their writing hat. Tasks which seem to be mundane to a new self-publisher are often pushed aside in favor of spending valuable time writing new material… or obsessing over the new marketing responsibilities they have… instead of fully protecting what they have already written and published.

    Your efforts to inform and point out the dangers of this practice are very much needed and well received.

    Wishing you continued success…

    Thom Reece

    • Thom,

      Traditionally published authors have the benefit of in house lawyers to help protect their work (actually to protect the publishing house’s investment). Self-published authors need to be aware of and manage all aspects of their business and copyright registration is one of them.

      Thanks for the comment.


  • Thanks for sharing this information. Forewarned is forearmed. Will share you link with my UK and Spanish author friends since they weren’t aware they could copyright their material in the US.

    • Mary Ann,

      Many non-U.S. creators are under the mistaken belief that they benefit from U.S. Copyright law without a registration. While there are some benefits afforded them, the things I discuss in this post are not available without a federal registration. I appreciate you sharing the post.


  • Kelly Abell says:

    Great info. May I re-blog the link to this? T

    • Kelly,

      I would be happy to have you select a quote from the post and provide a link back from your site.


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