What’s a Copyright Worth?

I was reading posts in a LinkedIn Group the other day, and came across a question about whether or not it was worthwhile to register a copyright on a blog. 

Copyright can seem like a jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing, so I decided to try to answer the question myself.  

Let me start by saying that there’s a difference between a copyright and a registered copyright.

A copyright exists as soon as your original, creative work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression.  That means you’ve sculpted, painted, photographed, sketched, drawn, written, recorded or otherwise preserved your creation in a lasting fashion.  Technically, you don’t have to do anything to create a copyright, except create an original work that is “fixed”.

Putting the words “Copyright 2011, Your Name” stakes your claim to the copyright on your work.  So if you are sending a query letter to a publisher, and including a sample chapter from a book you’re writing, put your copyright notice on the document – as a header or footer.  If you’re submitting a proposal to a potential client, do the same. 

A copyright registration is different. That’s when you use the © — and it means that you have applied for, and been granted, a registered copyright by filing the papers and paying the fee to the U.S. Copyright Office.   Fees for copyright registration start at $35 each – details on fees and procedures for registering a copyright are available on the U.S. Copyright Office website.  (Note:  You can use the © without registering your copyright, but my lawyer has discouraged me from doing so, so check with yours if it matters to you whether or not you spell out the word or use the symbol.)

Filing for the copyright entitles you to statutory damages (including attorney’s fees), and strengthens your case in court if you wind up in litigation. What it boils down to is how easy it is to collect damages — and how high the damage award might be.  Remember that your registration has to be in effect BEFORE any infringement takes place.  It can take some time to get your registration through the system, although there is an (expensive) expedited process that can speed it up.

Works with registered copyrights (©) are nearly always worth a lot more in damages than copyright works (Copyright).  Here’s how the late Dallas IP attorney Tom Blackwell explained to me why I should register some copyrights – but not others.  “You won a prize for this short story, and think you may turn it into a novel someday.  But you’ve never published it under your own name – just under the pseudonym you used to enter the contest.  So if it is plagarized, the first hurdle is proving ownership. 

”If you don’t register the copyright, we’re faced with having to prove both ownership and actual damages in court.  In this case, what were your actual damages?  How much did it cost you to produce the story?  What’s the value of the prize you won?  What’s the value of your unpublished novel?  How do we prove that you’re the person behind that pseudonym? Those are very hard questions to answer. 

“But as soon as the registration is in effect, we no longer have to prove actual damages.  The piece has a recognized owner — you, because you registered it.  And it also has a recognized value.  So this manuscript is well worth the registration fee.” 

Some other manuscripts, he told me, had an “established value” because they’d been bought and paid for by publishers who purchased a specific set of rights (First North American Serial Rights, anthology rights, etc.).  Whether I wrote a check to the copyright office or not, my publishing contracts established value, ownership and spelled out what rights I was selling — and which I was retaining.  (Note:  I always register my copyrights on books, but I don’t always register the copyrights on magazine articles or short stories. That has worked for me for several decades, but might or might not work for you.)

With my blog, I took the least expensive registration option:  I claim the copyrights when each post appears, and then register a year’s worth of them as a group of works published in serial format at the end of the year.  You can also register your blog as a periodical, or as an automated database. 

If you register the blog as a whole, you protect everything on it with a single registration. I pay $65 per year for each of my two blogs — and it’s well worth it to me.  

Here are some links that will help you figure out what the best copyright registration is for you – or whether you need to register your work with the copyright office.

US Copyright Office Electronic Office 

US Copyright Office FAQ 

Stanford University Copyright & Fair Use Center

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Teaching Copyright Project 

The truth is that most people never wind up in court over copyright issues — and it’s the possibility of legal proceedings that make registration so important.  Most claims of online copyright infringement are settled without litigation — often through DMCA Takedown Notices.  (For more on the use (and abuse) of DMCA notices, check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s white papers and resource pages.) 

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. Nothing I post here purports to be legal advice — I’m just repeating lessons I learned in hopes they will be useful to others.  Always consult a competent attorney licensed in your jurisdiction before making decisions about legal matters.)

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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2 Responses to What’s a Copyright Worth?

  1. Pingback: Who Works for Free? Too Many People! | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  2. Pingback: Digital copyright gets more complicated | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

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