From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 12|No 3|November|2002
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Copyright Registration Matters

by Jamie McKenzie
(about author)

© 2002, Jamie McKenzie
all rights reserved.

In the U.S., effective copyright protection requires formal registration of the work. Registration becomes essential when someone infringes upon your copyright and you wish to take legal action to stop them, win legal and court expenses or claim significant damages.

Effective Protection Requires Registration

The Copyright Office FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions - state that one should register copyright to be protected, since legal action to stop infringement may not be taken without registration, and infringement that occurs before such formal registration probably will not lead to an award of statutory damages or reimbursement of attorney’s fees.

13. Do I have to register with your office to be protected?

No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. See Circular 1, section Copyright Registration.

14. Why should I register my work if copyright protection is automatic?

Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law. See Circular 1, section Copyright Registration and Circular 38b on non-U.S. works.

The law states clearly that remedies for infringement require registration - timely registration.

If you fail to register early, you will probably pay your own legal bills and be unable to win major penalties against the violator.

111 Copyright Law of the United States

412. Registration as prerequisite to certain remedies for infringement11

In any action under this title, other than an action brought for a violation of the rights of the author under section 106A(a) or an action instituted under section 411(b), no award of statutory damages or of attorney’s fees, as provided by sections 504 and 505, shall be made for—

(1) any infringement of copyright in an unpublished work commenced before the effective date of its registration; or Copyright Notice, Deposit, and Registration §412

(2) any infringement of copyright commenced after first publication of the work and before the effective date of its registration, unless such registration is made within three months after the first publication of the work.

How the Legal Process Can Work Against the Writer

Large educational organizations, corporations, publishers, their insurance companies, and their attorneys may use delaying tactics to continue using infringed work after being warned. Their legal resources are usually extensive. The costs involved in blocking their infringement can be immense - ranging into the $15,000 - $100,000 range.

One of the first questions they may ask is whether the work in question is registered. If they learn the work is unregistered, they may rely upon delay to run up the writer's legal bills, knowing that the writer can do little financial damage in court. If the infringement occurs before registration, the victim of infringement pays his/her own legal bills and can win little in the way of damages. It may cost $15,000 or more to stop the infringement, and none of those legal costs are recoverable unless there is a settlement.

While this dispute is running its course, the offending parties may continue to offer and distribute the infringing materials after being formally warned. If the works in question have not been formally registered, they are pretty much able to ignore the letters and threats from the lawyers of the copyright owner.

In cases where work has not been formally registered, the most powerful weapon of the writer may be an appeal to the court of public opinion - letting readers know about the infringement, naming names and exposing the theft of intellectual property for what it is. Companies that employ delaying tactics within the legal system sometimes change strategies when they face public exposure.

Timely Registration gives the writer far more clout in cases of infringement, and the process is not all that complicated or expensive. The layperson can fill out the registration forms (see below) and the fee is only $30.

The law says the owner has exclusive rights to prepare or authorize derivative works.

Copyright should provide protection against unauthorized use of one's work.

This is especially true of commercial uses, but should also prevent plagiarism and other forms of dishonest use, even when those taking the work claim "fair use."

§ 106. Exclusive rights in copyrighted works

Subject to sections 107 through 121, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;

Steps to Complete Registration

The Office of Copyright offers clear instructions on its Web site at

All necessary forms are available online at in PDF format.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.
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