I am often asked, when should I copyright my work? Whether you have authored a book or created a piece of art, the good news is that you automatically have copyright. Specifically, as soon as the work is “fixed” (i.e. written down, recorded or in some other format that others can perceive), it has a copyright. However, you still want to register your copyright with the Copyright Office, for the reasons I went through in last month’s article.
Following are some considerations for when to register your copyright:
Registering After a Work is Complete. Registration is not legally required, so you can register at any time. However, if someone infringes on your copyright and you haven’t registered the work yet, you’ll have to wait for your registration certificate to arrive before you can sue them in court. If you won your case you would only be awarded the amount of money the infringer cost you – in other words, you would be reimbursed for lost sales and, if the court thinks it’s justified, your court fees. (In most cases the court would only order the loser to pay court fees for the winner if they felt the loser was a bad actor – or if they really didn’t like them.) If your work was registered before the infringer used your work, your case would be heard more quickly and you could get additional fines imposed on the infringer because the court assumes the infringer acted in bad faith if the work was registered when they started infringing. For all these reasons, it’s best to register early, ideally no later than three months after the work has been “published” (i.e. put on the market).
Registering Before a Work is Complete. I’m often asked if it makes sense to register a copyright before the work is published, or even before the work is complete. Registration is absolutely allowed before a work has been published, and you can register an incomplete work if you want to. However, the Copyright Office does not encourage this – they prefer to have the “final” version. In addition, any changes to the work between registration and publication will be considered a “derivative work” – in other words, you’ll have to get a separate copyright that only covers the substantive changes. There are sometimes advantages to this approach, but most of the time it’s just an extra hassle.
To summarize, you can register your work at any time, but the best time to do so would be just before or just after publication.
If you have any questions about when to register your copyright, or would like any assistance with the registration process, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.