Q:I am a freelance writer, and I understand I automatically have copyright protection for works that I author. Do I still need to register my works with the United States Copyright Office?
A. The short answer is no, you do not need to register to have copyright protection, but in most cases, you should register your works for the significant benefits to which registration entitles you.
Under U.S. Copyright law, you own a copyright in any work of original expression as soon as you reduce it to a tangible form – i.e., the moment you write it on paper, type it on a computer screen, paint it on canvas, etc. Under current law, that copyright protection generally lasts until 70 years after your death, regardless of whether the work is ever registered with the Copyright Office.
So, why register? For one, registration is relatively straightforward and inexpensive, with registration fees generally under $50 per work. Moreover, registration provides you with significant advantages in the event that you need to enforce your copyright against potential infringers. If you have not registered your work, you cannot bring a lawsuit in federal court to enforce your copyright. It is often said that copyright registration is the “key to the courthouse.” If you learn of infringement but have not registered, you will need to apply for registration before you can commence litigation. That delay may be the difference in scaring off and stopping potential infringers.
Timely registration also may allow you to recover greater damages from an infringer. If you sue someone for copyright infringement, you are entitled to seek either your actual damages (quantifiable monetary damages due to the infringement) or statutory damages. Statutory damages are determined by a judge based on the nature of the wrong committed by the infringer, and recovery of statutory damages does not require you to prove or quantify specific monetary damages, which often can be difficult to do. Statutory damages can range from $750 to $30,000 per copyrighted work, or up to $150,000 and attorney’s fees if the infringement was willful. Statutory damages, however, are only available for copyright infringement that occurs after a work is registered. In sum, the relative ease and low cost of registering, along with the substantial benefits, weigh heavily in favor of registration.