If you aren’t working as an employee and you haven’t signed a work made for hire agreement, you own the copyright to your artwork as soon as you create it. Copyright ownership is a powerful right, giving you nearly total control over what others can do with your work. Registering your copyright is a helpful extra step that will allow you to act quickly if someone infringes your artwork. If your copyright isn’t registered, you can’t sue for infringement.
In the United States, you can register your copyrights on the United States Copyright Office’s website, www.copyright.gov. You’ll need to set up an account to be able to file the electronic paperwork, but the process is fairly straightforward.
Registering a single work that you created and is only owned by you will cost $35. Registrations with multiple owners, where the creator and owner are different people, or of multiple works under the same registration cost $55.
Registering multiple pieces under the same registration may sound like an easy way of saving money, but be warned: One of the factors courts consider in an infringement claim is how much of the original work was used. When multiple pieces are covered by one registration, the “original work” is all of the pieces making up the registration.
Copyright owners are required to deposit copies of their work when registering a copyright. (The copies are categorized and kept safe in the Library of Congress’s collection.) Most registrations will require you to submit two copies of the work you’re registering.
For pieces where it would be impossible or burdensome to submit copies, the U.S. Copyright Office may be able to accept a photograph of the work or grant an exception to the requirement. If your artwork sounds like it would fit into this category, consider consulting with an attorney so you can learn exactly how to handle the deposit requirement.
Once your registration is processed, you’ll get your official registration certificate in the mail. When you do, pat yourself on the back — you’ve just navigated a complex government process in the name of your art and emerged victorious!
Katie Lane is an attorney and negotiation coach in Portland, Oregon, helping artists and freelancers protect their rights and get paid fairly for the work they do. You can read her blog at WorkMadeForHire.net and follow her on Twitter: @_katie_lane.