Copyright registration

Legally, your copyright exists as soon as you create your work. But, thanks to the recent Supreme Court Fourth Estate v. ruling, without formal copyright registration, you can’t ask the courts to enforce or defend your legal rights.

United States Copyright Office is in charge of copyright registration. This office maintains an online electronic copyright registration website (eCO) at Their website allows you to upload and file most (but not all) creative works, along with authorship and ownership information.

In addition to the work itself, other registration information that you need to provide includes work title, year of completion, date of first publication, and name of the authors. If you are claiming that you own the work (e.g. author or “work for hire”), you also need to state this and give the owner’s name and address. You also need to include a brief description of the work. If your work incorporates any preexisting material, you must also disclose it.  This preexisting material can include stock graphics or sounds, for example.

The website accepts a fairly decent range of common text, image, audio, and video file types, including pdf, rtf, doc, midi, jpg, pdf, png, mpg, mp3, mp4, avi, and mov. The website also accepts common compressed formats such as rar and zip. Your connection speed and the website’s sixty-minute upload time limit determine the maximum file size. So at broadband speeds, Gigabyte+ sized files are possible. However, unless you pay extra for “full-term retention”, the copyright office will only guarantee to retain your file(s) for 20 years.

The eCO works fast, but the copyright office itself does not

Although the submission process itself is quick, the copyright office then takes about 3 months (1-6 months) to process electronic submissions.  “Snail Mail” submissions can take twice as long! Try to get the submission right the first time. This is because if there are problems, the copyright office will correspond with you.  This “correspondence” can delay registration by many more months.  You can pay extra for expedited registration, but you must also adequately explain why there is a rush.

There are some tricky aspects to the system. Is your creative work divided into sections (book chapters, images in a picture book, slide shows, video sections, music album tracks). Check on the rules here. Additionally, many creative works also combine more than one media (e.g. combine text, images, video, sound). The copyright office distinguishes between these different media types, and also distinguishes between individual works, “groups”, and “collections”. These have different filing fees and requirements. To ensure success and avoid “correspondence”, it is important to get this right.

Copyright legal actions often have short deadlines. Thus, it is generally a good idea to start the copyright registration process early (in advance of any legal problems), so that registration delays don’t cause you to blow a legal deadline.