Should You Register Your Copyright?

Ever since the Copyright Act of 1976, which took effect in 1978, copyright has been granted in a work merely by fixing it into a tangible medium of expression. This is a fact we already covered.

However, the fact you have all of the rights over your work does not mean you have the ability to enforce them. In the United States, an additional step is required if you want to take legal action over copyright infringement, you have to first register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.

This has caused many content creators on the Web, including freelance writers, to wonder if they should be registering their works. Unfortunately, this is a very personal decision and there is no real right or wrong answer. Instead, it’s a matter of understanding what is gained by registering your work and deciding if it is worth the time, effort and expense to do so.

However, if you’re a freelance writer and your content is not being considered a work for hire, this is something you need to at least consider seriously as the consequences for not understanding the risks can be dire..

Benefits of Registration

If you choose to register your works with the U.S. Copyright Office, there are many benefits that you receive:

  1. Public Record: Registering your work creates a public record of it and your copyright claim.
  2. Ability to Sue: A registration is a requirement to be able to sue in the U.S. for copyright infringement, courts can not hear copyright cases without registrations as they lack jurisdiction.
  3. Prima Facie Evidence: The registration provides evidence that, unless somehow disproved, is sufficient to prove both the validity of your copyright and your authorship in it. The registration must be filed within 5 years of publication to receive this benefit.
  4. Statutory Damages/Attorney’s Fees: If registered within three months of publication or before an infringement takes place, you are eligible to receive both statutory damages and attorney’s fees for any infringement. These make suing for an infringement practical. Without these damages, you are limited to actual damages which are the greater of what the infringer gained or you provably lost due to the infringement, which is usually not enough to sue over.
  5. Customs Enforcement: Finally, if you register your copyright, you can seek assistance from the U.S. Customs Department to help block the importation of illegal copies. This benefit is of little use to freelance writers.

As you can see from the list, the primary benefits are the ability to sue and the ability to collect statutory damages and attorney’s fees. However, for both of those to happen, you need to register in a timely fashion. Most blogs, however, do not do that.

The question then becomes, should they start and, if so, under what schedule?

The Costs of Registration

Electronic copyright registration, via the Copyright Office’s eCO System, costs $35 per registration and can take about 30 minutes to complete, less once you get used to the process.

You can register multiple works in the same registration, with no real limit, but you will only be able to obtain statutory damages once per registration, meaning that if multiple works in one registration are infringed upon you’ll only be able to collect damages for one.

Ideally, you would register your new content once every three months to ensure timely filing, as mentioned above. This means that process costs $140 per year to ensure that all of your work is protected to the maximum of the law. If you choose to go through an attorney or a copyright registration service, it can cost a great deal more.

Should You Register Your Work?

As I mentioned above, there is no magic answer to the question about whether you should register your works. Most experts will advise you to register just to be on the safe side and this is solid advice, after all, it’s better to have rights and options and not use them than to not have them and need them.

However, it isn’t always that cut and dry.

The vast majority of works that are registered never see any kind of legal conflict, meaning that the owner went through the time and expense of filing a registration for no reason. Considering that you still have other remedies available, such as cease and desist letters and DMCA takedown notices to secure the removal of infringing materials, you may be able to enforce your rights adequately without a registration.

It’s best to view a copyright registration like insurance. It’s best to have it if you can, especially if you’re in a high-risk for being infringed, but if you never plan on actually using it, it’s best to not bother. If you think there’s any possibility you might want to sue, it’s worth the time and money to get it. If you don’t, it probably isn’t.

All in all, I recommend it but there are many conditions where it just isn’t worth the time.

What About International Authors?

If you are outside the U.S. you still need to mull these issues. THe reason is that, while you don’t need a registration to sue in the U.S., you still won’t have statutory damages or attorney fees available if you don’t do so timely. As a result, suing may not be impossible, but it will almost certainly be impractical.

Though such a registration only helps with legal disputes within the U.S., given how prominent the country is on the Web, the odds of having a copyright conflict with a person, a host or a company based in the country is pretty high and, if you think you might want to sue over it, your best bet is to register.

Bottom Line

As with most copyright questions, there are no easy answers when it comes to registration. Copyright is a complicated area of law and the registration issue is an extension of it.

The best thing you can do is be aware of what rights registering your work gives you and decide what the appropriate course of action is for you.

Hopefully you’ll be better able to do that now.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.


I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.


3 responses
  1. Carol Avatar

    I decided to go ahead and register my Make a Living Writing ebook — it’s 200+ pages of information, so I’d like to be able to defend the value of that material if it turns up all over the Internet.

  2. Maria Avatar

    Carol, you’d be an idiot if you didn’t. But I guess announcing it here did give you a legitimate excuse to spam us about your self-published ebook efforts.

    Seriously: Anyone who self-publishes a book length work should register copyright to protect that work. Isn’t it worth $35 to give you a solid basis for taking action against copyright infringers?

    While I realize that many self-publishers try to cut every cost corner they can when publishing, it seems to me that this is one expense that should not be eliminated. When an author publishes with a regular publisher, that publisher registers the copyright. Since a self publisher is a publisher, he or she now bears the burden of that step and its related expense.

  3. Wendy Strain Avatar

    You mentioned copyrighting blogs. Is that common? I’d never thought about that before. Can you share a little more information about that?

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