Copyright is a form of intellectual property protection covering original creative works. The work does not need to be published or registered to be protected, but it must have a physical form (written, recorded, etc.). You should register a work if you want to protect your right to sue and collect damages in case of infringement.

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Your Protection Under Copyright Law

The moment you create your work in tangible form, copyright law gives you the right to:

It's a good idea to include a copyright notice on your work to remind others that you hold copyright to it.

Registration provides additional protections of these rights, some of which are time-limited. After registration you have:

  • A public record of your ownership of the work and a certificate of registration

  • The ability to file a lawsuit against people who use your work without permission

  • Eligibility for statutory damages and attorney's fees if you win your case

Registering before infringement occurs makes it easier to recover damages. If you register after infringement occurs, you can only collect damages from the date of registration forward.

Works Protected Under Copyright Law

Copyright law covers all original creative works that have a tangible form. Examples include:

  • Written works, such as books or poems, on paper or saved as computer files

  • Musical works, including both notes and words, as recorded on paper or in digital form

  • Dramatic and/or choreographed works, such as plays and dance routines

  • Physical artwork like paintings and sculptures

  • Architecture

  • Computer programs

  • Original website content, including text, images and video

You cannot copyright the idea you used to create your work, only the specific way you have expressed that idea. That is why your creation must have tangible form. Additional works that cannot be copyrighted include:

  • Simple lists of facts or common information, such as ingredients in a recipe or important dates. You must add original information to justify copyright protection.

  • Works consisting strictly of common information, such as a calendar. Original artwork included in the calendar is protected separate from the calendar.

  • Titles or short phrases, including domain names. In some cases, you may be able to trademark a domain name.

How to Register Copyright

You may register both published and unpublished works, as long as they qualify for copyright protection. You may submit your application, including the appropriate fee and a copy of the work for deposit, either online, using the Copyright Office's eCO online system, or by mail. An electronic copy is acceptable for some types of deposits. The Library of Congress requires hard-copy deposits of other works. For those, you may include an electronic copy with an electronic application, but you will also need to send a "best edition" of your work by mail.

Keep in mind that registering your copyright creates a public record which, by definition, is available to the public. These records are accessible online, and you cannot delete yours once you create it. If you don't want to use your real name in your application, you don't have to, but be sure you check "Pseudonymous" on your application.

Poor Man's Copyright Myth

Sending a copy of your work to yourself through the mail provides you with a sealed, date-stamped envelope containing your work. This procedure has been called a "poor man's copyright," and many people believe it offers additional protection by proving when you created a work and, therefore, your ownership of the copyright. However, copyright law does not recognize this procedure as valid. Copyright is automatic as soon as you record a work. For additional protection, you must register it.

Renewing Copyright

You do not need to renew copyright on any works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978. These are automatically protected for your lifetime, plus 70 years.

If you filed for copyright protection between Jan. 1, 1964, and Dec. 31, 1977, your original 28-year copyright was automatically renewed and extended by 67 years (for 95 years total protection). Although you do not need to file a renewal registration for these works, you may do so if you would like a renewal certificate.

Any earlier registrations that were not properly renewed have expired and cannot be renewed.

Copyright Protection in Other Countries

Your United States copyright protections do not necessarily extend to other countries, and there is no application for "international copyright." The United States does have agreements with many countries in which they agree to honor the copyrights of each others' citizens or make gaining copyright protection easier. Some foreign countries will only recognize copyrights if you have filed public notice of your claim (registered it).

Remember, although copyright is automatic, putting a notice on your work serves to remind others of that. And registration provides the best protection in case of theft.

Get Started Ask a Lawyer You'll get an answer in one day.

Get Started Ask a lawyer You'll get an answer in one day.