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A universal mantra of copyright lawyers is “register your copyrights.” This month, I’m not going to explain why this is so important (if you want to know why copyright registration is important, you can go to my website and ring up “Wherefore Thou Art #17: Registering Your Copyrights”); instead I’m going to explain how to register your copyrights.

First, I want to emphasize that you can (and should) register your copyrights yourself. You don’t generally need a lawyer to do it. I’ve seen lawyers advertise that they provide copyright registration services, and frankly, I think there’s a special place in lawyer hell for many of them. Registration is only marginally more difficult than subscribing to a magazine. I generally only handle the registration duties for a client under the following circumstances (a) when speed and accuracy are of the absolute essence; (b) where a client makes it clear that his or her time is more valuable than mine; or (c) when I have serious doubts that a client possesses the organizational skills necessary to, say, subscribe to a magazine. Otherwise I strongly encourage clients to just do it themselves. It’s easy, and to use an overused word, the process can be empowering.

Applications are submitted to the United States Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress. You will need to fill out one of the official copyright registration forms. Forms are available for download at the Copyright Office’s website at You can also call the Copyright Office’s forms hotline at (202) 707-9100 (it’s not a free call!) and order forms using their automated voicemail system, which is only moderately annoying. If you are a resolute Luddite, you can write to the Copyright Office at U.S. Copyright Office, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. 20559-6000 and ask them to send you forms, or better yet, go to your nearest public library, which ought to have a complete set of the various forms that you can copy and take home.

Strangely, the Copyright Office doesn’t yet allow for online registration. I’m sure they have a good reason for this, but I can’t think of one. In any event, to register a copyright you still have to manually fill out the forms, and send the package to them through the mail or by courier.

Which form you’ll need depends on what you want to register. Writers will use Form TX (the TX stands for “text”); Visual artists, like painters, sculptors, and photographers, will use Form VA (the VA does not stand for “Veterans Administration”). Creators of musical compositions, theatrical scripts, films, and the like will use form PA (“performing arts”); Performing musicians making recordings will use Form SR (“sound recording”). Form SR has an option where you can register both the sound recording and the underlying musical composition (which each get independent copyrights) together.

There are standard forms and short forms – you can use the short form if there is only one author, if the author (for registration purposes) is a real person, and if the entire work is brand new and not an adaptation of a work that already exists.

Filling out the forms is fairly simple, and the instructions that come with the forms are straightforward. Name, address, what it is you’re registering in ten words or less, stuff like that. You’re asked for your year of birth, skip that if you want. It’s optional. If you use a fake name with your work, list it under “pseudonyms”. There’s a place for anonymous authors to be listed. Since all registrations are public records, this option doesn’t truly provide anonymity, so if you’re worried about getting Salmon Rushdie’d for something controversial you’ve created, this won’t provide you with any real protection. I used the “anonymous” option recently where I had three co-authors for a work, but they had agreed that only one would be listed publically as The Author, for marketing purposes more than anything else. So the other two were registered as “anonymous”.

The “year of creation” is straightforward, the “year of publication” is less so. “Publication” is a term of art in copyright law, and if and when a work is “published” does have some legal ramifications I don’t need to go into here. But the forms require you to tell them whether the work has been published or not. “Publishing” in this context means if copies of a work have been made and sold or offered for sale to the public. Merely displaying or performing a work is not publication, and most courts seem to agree that simply posting a work on the internet (without an offering of a copy of the work for sale) is not publication, either.

If you are registering an adaptation or updated version of an existing work (what’s called “a derivative work”), you’ll need to tell them information about the original work, and then a description of what you’ve added to it. They’re not asking you to list your influences here! They are asking if you have created a new version, or a version in a different media, of an existing work.

Finally, along with your application you need to send them copies of the work. If your work is unpublished, you send them one copy; if the work is published you’re supposed to send them two. What do you send? Pretty much any reasonably readily readable (somebody call the alliteration police!) representation (ow!) of the work will do. The Copyright Office does have preferences. For sound recordings, they like CD’s more than cassettes more than vinyl records more than 8-tracks. I was told by someone at the Copyright Office that for literary works, they prefer paper copies to digital files, which surprised me. But they will accept almost anything that is a fairly “standard” media representation of the work. For three-dimensional works, like a sculpture, the Copyright Office will accept a series of photographs that give a clear indication of the piece.

Pack it all up and send the application to the Copyright Office along with a check for $30.00 per application. I highly recommend sending the application via overnight courier, or some way that gives you proof of delivery. The postal service has been, in my experience, a little squirrelly lately, plus the Copyright Office (like much of the federal government) has been overly jumpy about the mail since 9-11. A few years ago, regular mail deliveries to the Copyright Office were delayed for months because of concerns about anthrax, and the only way to be sure an application actually got there was to use a private courier (like UPS or Fed Ex), or hand deliver the application yourself. You should have proof of delivery, in any event.

You will hear from the Copyright Office in a couple of months if there is something wrong with your application, or if they have questions, of it they decide that the thing you sent in is not copyrightable. Otherwise, expect to get your certificate of registration in five or six months. Don’t bug them about your registration unless at least six months go by and you haven’t heard anything. They don’t like being bugged about pending registrations. If your application reached them, you can be generally confident that it’s in the pipeline.

If you still have any questions, visit the Copyright Office website, which has a wealth of detailed instructions and other information about the process. You can also call the question hotline at (202) 707-5959. Again, this is not a free call and you may wind up paying long distance charges for being on hold for a while. But if you can work the voice-mail system to get to a breathing human, the hotline folks there are generally helpful and understanding.

Did I tell you to register your stuff? Register your stuff.

© 2002 Paul C. Rapp
This article originally appeared in The Artful Mind, and is intended to provide the reader with an awareness of copyright law and not legal advice.