A creative work receives copyright protection at the time of its creation, without the need to register it (or take any action). But you can register a copyrighted work with the the U.S. Copyright Office. So I often face the question of whether a business should take the time and expense to register a work. The U.S. Copyright Office provides some useful online resources about the advantages of registration. Circular 1, titled “Copyright Basics,” offers a general overview of copyright law and registration.
There are many good reasons and financial rewards for registering your work:
First and foremost, you cannot file a lawsuit for infringement if your work is not registered. You will have to register the copyright before any legal actions can proceed in court. Of course, you can always wait until right before suing to register your work, so this is not a huge advantage.
Second, it establishes a public record of your claim to copyright. By registering your work, you will create a definitive date that no one will be able to question. There are other ways to establish these dates (through metadata for online resources as an example), but a registration is one of the most definitive ways to establish a date.
Third, if you register your copyright within five years of its publication, that registration acts as evidence that you own your copyright and that it is valid. Note that “publication” generally means distributing copies of your work to the public by selling, renting, lending, etc. This includes distributing copies to a group of people who further distributes the work.
Fourth, if you register your copyright within three months of its publication or before it is infringed, then you may be able to get statutory damages (the damages allowed by statute) and attorneys’ fees if you win your infringement case in court. Statutory damages can be an important tool because proving actual damages can be a difficult task. If you do not register your work until more than three months after its publication and after the infringement starts, you’ll be stuck with actual damages and profits.
Fifth, you get to request the U.S. Customs service to bar imports of infringing copies of your work. This can be an important tool to prevent foreign knockoffs from entering the country.
You can register your copyright at any time during its lifetime, but earlier is generally better. That being said, online entrepreneurs today tend to create tons of copyrighted works. It will not make sense to register all of your copyrights. And for companies with limited resources, taking the time and spending the money to register every work would almost certainly be a mistake. But you should certainly strongly consider registering the copyrights in any books, music, or significant videos that you create.
You should consider your plan for copyright registration as part of developing your overall intellectual property plan.