True, copyright law is neither simple nor easy to navigate. But even with the rising cost (to $45 per application, unless Congress makes some very unlikely move before July 1) there are some good reasons to register your work.
Protect it before you publish or sell it. . .
1. Filling out an application is forward-looking protection. If you register your work before you publish it–actually, before any infringement takes place–you can file for punitive damages. Otherwise, all you get is actual damages–what you would have been paid for the work or, if it is used in an ad, the actual cost of the ad space.
. . . Or Up to 90 Days Later & Still Get Protection
2. If your unprotected work has already been published, you still have time. The application rules give you 90 days after first publication to register your work and receive full protection, even if someone has already violated the copyright.
Unpublished Works Can Be Grouped for One Application Fee
3. The government gives artists–including writers and photographers– an even better incentive to register work. If your work is unpublished you can group a large number of pieces for the same $45 price. According to the government copyright office, “a group of unpublished works may be registered as a collection the all the following conditions are met.
• The elements of the collection are assembled in an orderly form.
• The combined elements bear a single title identifying the collection as a whole.
• The copyright claimant or claimants for each element in the collection are the same.
• All the elements are by the same author, or if they are by different authors, at least one author has contributed copyrightable authorship to each element.”
That means that you can gather groups of your work, photograph it all at the same time, and submit it under one form. I did not find a limit to number of works, other than space on a CD. It’s always wise to check out the rules carefully, but a CD can hold a lot of images, and the government will take jpgs, so you don’t waste time with huge files.
Be Safe, File All Your Work Every 90 Days
If you produce a regular stream of work for publication at a later date, you can file every 90 days and stay within all the rules of application. If you are a visual artist who frames your work, take the photo or scan before framing. It’s easier. Otherwise, simply scan or photograph visual files and keep them in a “To Be Copyrighted” file. The same idea works for writers. Once every 90 days, take all the new work, download and fill out the application, and send it in with a check.
The government is heading toward online applications, too. So far, you can use CDs to group your work. No more double copies, printed photos and manuscripts copies.
I’d also suggest using the smallest post office-provided box available to send in your CD and application. The anthrax scare still results in random government mail being subjected to such high doses of radiation that CDs have been known to melt and paper burn. Boxes are said to be opened by machine and inspected by hand. It may save the CD. Just to be on the safe side, I’d attach a signed return receipt. That way you won’t have to wonder if your package made it. And a paper trail is important to protect your work.
Spend some time on the government’s site. It’s much easier to navigate than it used to be, and while the forms are still not a great way to spend an afternoon, it’s a great insurance in a world that considers anything on the Web free to the person who can successfully steal it.
The government’s website on copyright, including links for writers, visual artists, and performing artists, is also the place to find links to FAQs, applications and updates on the law.