In the US, copyright registration is needed to enforce your copyrights. This can be done online at the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO).
In theory, copyright exists as soon as a work is created. But, thanks to the recent Supreme Court Fourth Estate v. Wallstreet.com ruling, without formal copyright registration, you can’t ask the courts to enforce or defend your legal rights.
Copyrights are registered at the United States Copyright Office. This office maintains an online electronic copyright registration website (eCO) at copyright.gov. 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. You must also disclose any preexisting material that may be included in your uploaded work. 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. The file sizes are limited by your connection speed and the website’s sixty-minute upload time limit. 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.
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! If there are problems with the submission, the copyright office will correspond with you and require that these problems be fixed. 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. Many creative works are divided into sections, such as book chapters, images in a picture book, slide shows, video sections, music album tracks, and so on. 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.