Deciding whether and when to invest your time and money to protect creative work may seem like a challenge. It's actually an easy decision if your goal is to earn a living from your art. If any one of these three situations applies to you, you should plan to take the next steps in protecting your work:
- You intend to make money from your work.
- Someone has stolen your work.
- You have already sold your work.
Answering "yes" to any of those scenarios should prompt you to file an application for copyright registration on your work.
Benefits of Copyright Registration
The regularly touted benefit of copyright registration is the possibility of recovering statutory damages of up to $150,000 per [willful] infringement and attorneys fees in litigation. A less frequently emphasized benefit is that the registration certificate is the physical document that embodies the group of intangible rights in your work, rights that can be licensed to generate multiple revenue streams.
Having a chance to recover statutory damages and attorneys fees from an infringer is powerful leverage in court, but the reality is that most cases of infringement never get that far. Federal litigation is extraordinarily expensive and the possibility of a significant recovery in an enforcement action rarely supports the upfront financial investment in litigation.
The more realistic enforcement benefit that comes from having a copyright registration in hand is being able to issue effective takedown notices to website hosts, search engines, and social media platforms where the infringing material is found. The registration certificate is the best evidence that you are the owner of the original creative work.
Protect Creative Work You Intend to Sell
Selling your work is what makes you a professional. Your creative skill set may be high quality, but until you put that first dollar (or euro, bitcoin, or other currency of choice) into your pocket, you are not yet a professional.
The work you intend to sell and on which you intend to build a sustainable income or business is the most obvious category of work to protect. Protect it and announce to the world that you claim it as your own, so that others will not undermine your ability to generate revenue from it.
The three steps for a productive workflow designed to protect creative work are:
- publish; and then
- apply for registration within three months of publishing.
Publication, in the copyright sense of the word, means making your work available for sale or further distribution.
A single copyright application can be used to file a group or collection of published works if the works have all been published on the same day. This is an economical approach. The filing fee for a group application is $55. Works published on different days require separate applications. The filing fee for an application for a single work is $35.
A group of unpublished works can be filed using a single application. Depending on your style, you may be able to design your workflow to protect creative work like this:
- apply for registration; and then
There are creative professionals who finish a work, then publish it immediately. Many authors work this way, even when working on a book series. There are others who create the individual works in a collection, then publish the collection all at once. An artist who is preparing for a show, for example, may release all new work when the show opens. In that case, the artist could register the work in the show using a single application.
There are different rules for photographs.
Copyright Practice Tip
Build copyright registration into your workflow and you won't have to play catch up later. File an application to protect creative work either before you publish it, or in three months after publication. Choose the timing that fits your style. Think of filing the application as finishing the creative process.
Failing to file a copyright application on the creative work you intend to be the foundation of your business is like opening a retail store and not locking the door when you leave for the day.
Protect Creative Work that has been Stolen or Infringed
If someone has already taken your creative work and reused it for themselves or commercially, the fact that they took it is a signal that the work has value. It may not be a strong signal, but it is a signal nevertheless. The more your work is taken by others, the stronger the value signal.
Even if you never intended to sell that work or did not expect to profit from it, the fact that someone else has used it indicates that it has potential to generate revenue.
You may think the horse has left the barn and that it is too late to take protective action for a piece that has already been taken or infringed by someone else. Not true. There is still a benefit to protecting that work by filing an application for copyright registration even after it has been taken and used by others.
Consider the case of Carlos Ramirez, an 18-year-old student. One night back in 2008 when he should have been studying, he doodled out a cartoon of an Internet troll. He uploaded his cartoon to an online image-based bulletin board and went to bed.
By the next morning, his cartoon had gained some popularity and it started to get shared. Soon, it became an Internet meme.
Initially Ramirez, whose online name is Whynne, was pleased that his doodle was being shared. He told his mom about it and she encouraged him to file for copyright registration which he did in 2010. Since then, by policing the uses of his work and enforcing his rights, he has earned as much as $10,000 to $15,000 a month in licensing fees.
Trollface was embraced by the Internet. The fact that it was shared widely was a strong signal of its value. Filing for a copyright registration on work that was never intended to be monetized gave Ramirez the business foundation for a licensing program on the cartoon.
Protect Creative Work You Have Already Sold
Work that you have already sold or given away is the third category of work that deserves to be protected. Remember that although you may have sold the piece, you haven't sold your rights.
There are three reasons to file an application for copyright registration on work that has already left your possession:
- Work that has been bought by someone has a strong value signal. Likewise, work that you've given away is highly valued by you.
- Registering work that has been sold helps you build a market for your work.
- Protecting your work now will help you build a legacy.
Anything that you have sold has value. The value is more than just the purchase price. Depending on what the piece is, you may sell or license it more than once. Digital work, for example, is easily sold more than once. It is also easily copied. To minimize infringement and maximize enforcement option, copyright registration makes sense.
Copyright registrations are the seminal pieces of paper that help you build a marketplace for your work. Registrations along with good records of your sales become the basis for creating a creative career catalog. Knowing who bought your work and for how much can help you price licenses for that work and for pieces created later.
Copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. Those rights and the revenue that is generated by them become part of your legacy.
You can leave those rights to your children, heirs, or charity of your choice just as if they are stocks or bonds. A copy of the registrations can be attached to your will.
Copyright's inheritance value has served the family of the author of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer very well. For an in depth look at the power of copyright in your estate, check out the discussion I had with Joanna Penn on the Creative Penn: What Happens When an Author Dies.
Build a Strategy to Protect Creative Work
Professionals protect the assets that make them money. Your revenue generating assets are your creative works. The decision to protect them so you can continue to build your creative business and make a living from your work should be an easy one.