Copyright basics for writers, Part 2: Registration

A writer’s work is never dull, even when that work is learning business basics and legalities. That’s been my experience as I study copyright, publishing contracts, and other topics that are not the typical reading fare.

It’s the “What if?” and “One day…” thoughts that make this study meaningful for me. As I read through the dry language, I imagine: my name interspersed throughout the text; the meeting with a publisher; the congratulatory phone call from my agent; the contract-signing celebration with friends. Those scenarios dance through my mind as I read these documents.

So … wading through laborious copyright registration text? Bring it on.

As I emphasize in the What is copyright? post, there’s no better time than today to start educating yourself about the business side of your writing life. One day your writing will be noticed by a book publisher, film director, magazine editor, or some other user of words who will contact you with an offer for your work. The discussion and contract will include copyright, and you want to be familiar with U.S. copyright law when that exciting day arrives.

Here is my summary of the registration process. You can find detailed explanations in the Copyright Office Copyright Basics pamphlet.

[Here’s a link to copyright for European countries.]

Copyright Registration

The first thing to understand is that copyright is automatic as soon as you create your work, where “create” means it is fixed in copies for the first time (pencil to paper; keyboard to computer). Using the copyright notice (©) shows the public that you own the work, the year it was published, and its protection by federal law. It’s your right to profit from your creative work. (Read more about the copyright notice.)

Registering your work with the Copyright Office is a legal formality that makes public record of the fact. You are not required to register your work with the Office in order to receive the copyright protection.

It does have its advantages, though, as follows:

  • Registration creates a public record of your copyright claim.
  • Before you can file an infringement suit, registration is necessary.
  • Registration will give evidence in court of the copyright’s validity.
  • With registration, you will receive additional compensation for damages and attorney’s fees over and above the actual damages and profits.
  • Registration allows the owner of the copyright to record it with the U. S. Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies.

That’s a solid list of good reasons to have your work registered.

It’s important to note, however, that when you’re at the publishing contract stage, the business of copyright registration is usually the work of the publisher. Upon publication of your book, the publisher will submit the necessary forms to formally register the copyright in your name with the Library of Congress. The publisher is only buying the rights to publish.

So, when should you register and when should you wait? When your work is to be published and offered for sale, then the copyright must be registered. Otherwise, there is no requirement to register. It’s your choice. The difficulty comes into play when you are shopping your book and your manuscript moves into the hands of another. New writers fear the worst: a manuscript stolen by an agent or a publisher.

Most publisher sites I visited have an FAQ section on copyright. The text addresses the fear writers have of their works being stolen and assures the writer that “there is no need to worry,” because “no legitimate publisher would steal your manuscript,” so “there is no need to register before submission.”

Do your homework before you send out your work. Is the publisher well known? If not, do you know anyone who’s had dealings with the company? How does its copyright policy hold up to federal law?

Registration Procedures

The Copyright Office has made registering your work a simple process. You will want to send a packet that includes the following:

  1. A completed application form,
  2. a nonrefundable filing fee, and
  3. a nonreturnable deposit—that is, a copy of your work to be registered and “deposited” with the Copyright Office.

The fastest and most cost-effective way to register your copyright is online through the electronic Copyright Office (eCo). Here you will find a lower filing fee ($35), fastest processing time, online status tracking, and uploading of electronic files. You can also register via an online fill-in form ($50) or a paper application ($65).

Effective Date of Registration

As soon as the Copyright Office receives the three required elements, the registration goes into effect. The processing time varies due to the amount of material the Office receives, which is over 600,000 applications per year.

You’ll receive an email from the Office only if you applied online. Paper applications are not acknowledged.

After applying, you can expect:

  • contact from the Office if further information is needed; or
  • a certificate of registration, or
  • a letter explaining why the application has been rejected.

It’s good to know that your copyright registration is effective on the date the Office receives your packet. It may take the Office weeks to process the application and mail the certificate of registration. Rest assured that your work, once it’s there, receives the perks that registration offers.


There you have it: copyright basics for writers. It’s good to know, and I’m learning about it along with you. I’ve added the two summaries to my Writer’s Toolbox page. Stop by any time you need a refresher.

If you’d like the full text of the Copyright Office’s Copyright Basics, you can download the PDF here.

For even more detailed information, visit the Copyright Office website

Question: What experience do you have with copyright registration?


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