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Posted on Feb 04, 2022

Is Registered Copyright Necessary for Every Book?

Registered copyright is a public record of your ownership. In the event that your copyright is breached, it entitles you to statutory compensation.

While registering your book for copyright seems like a no-brainer, it does come with a $45 cost. Let's look closer at the subject registered copyright to see whether you really need it for your book.

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Copyright protection on an original work exists in the United States and the United Kingdom the moment you create that work (and extends for 70 years after your death). You could be writing the next Great American Novel or just a single sentence — either way, you own the rights to the words as soon as they're written.

As the copyright owner, only you have:

  • The right to reproduce or make copies of your work
  • The right to distribute copies of your work
  • The right to create a derivative work
  • The right to display or perform your work publicly

So if an author’s work is protected as soon as they commit words to paper, why do people talk about registering their copyright?

If someone infringes your copyright, you are legally entitled to any loss of earnings caused by that person stealing your intellectual property. However, the 'loss of earnings' is incredibly hard to prove and quantify in courts.

With registered copyright, however, you are entitled to statutory damages. This means that you can get a meaningful payout of up to $150,000 (plus legal fees) regardless of how much money you've lost — and how much the infringing party has made from your work.

In short, registering a copyright is like buying insurance. But what are the odds that you'll need to claim on this policy?

Infringement cases are exceedingly rare

It’s important to remember that the chances of somebody illegally infringing upon your work are extremely slim. Many authors worry about sending manuscripts to agents and publishers, worries that their ideas will be stolen — but this fear is pretty much unfounded.

Theft of intellectual property is the publishing industry's biggest taboo. In fact, the publishing world was rocked with the arrest of Filippo Bernardini, a Simon & Schuster employee who had illegally obtained pre-publication manuscripts of high-profile authors. But here's the rub: Bernardini didn't even try to sell the manuscripts or pass them off as his own.

The vast majority of professionals (we can’t emphasize this enough) will respect your book for what it is: an original work that’s not to be stolen from.

Still, there remains a tiny, non-zero chance that someone will infringe on your rights in your future, just as the odds are 1 in 75,000 you’ll get struck by a comet or asteroid in your lifetime.

At this point, you may be asking: isn't there a free way to register copyright?

In the past, you might’ve caught wind of something called 'poor man’s copyright.' Instead of paying the government office in Washington, you mail yourself a copy of your manuscript in a sealed envelope. (And some people will attempt to do this through e-mail, too.)

Ta-da! Now you’ve got proof of your work, along with a date stamp!

There’s just one catch: it won’t work.

Feel free to check out The Logo Factory’s complete debunk or Slate.com’s take on it. The general legal consensus is that this won’t do anything for you in a courtroom, other than providing you with a nice big envelope you can use to fan yourself while the judge makes fun of your attorney.

So if you decide to take steps to protect your work to the maximum, do it right. There’s just no replacement for the U.S. Copyright Office.

Registration may not be needed outside the US

World copyrightWhile the U.S. Copyright Office strongly recommends registration for all authors, it’s important to note that this might not be the case in the rest of the world. For instance, there is no U.K. equivalent.

If you’re self-publishing in the U.K., all you need to do is mail a copy of your work to the Legal Deposit Office of the British Library within one month of publication. Bear in mind that this only applies to print books, so don’t start mailing your Kindle to London all at once.

The Berne Convention — an international agreement dating back to 1886 — eliminated the need for domestic registration in most of its 164 signatory nations. But one exception (as you might’ve guessed) is the U.S., which still offers all the remedial incentives mentioned above for those who register.

If in doubt, arm yourself with more info

Writers Beware, which is sponsored by the SFWA, is always a dependable place to get contract advice. We especially are fans of their Basic Copyright page and this blog post. And for more information on photography usage and whether or not you should register the copyright for a book cover, check out this post over on Book Design House and this post on CreativIndie.

Special thanks to the attorneys who contributed to this post and provided their knowledge:

  • John Mason is an intellectual property attorney specializing in creative and entertainment industry copyright cases. Contact John at www.copyrightcounselors.com or jmason@copyrightcounselors.com.
  • Sean Lynch is an intellectual property attorney who provides copyright and trademark advice to clients building businesses and brands. In addition, you can find Sean at slynchlaw.com and thesurflawyer.com.
  • Henry Runge is an Associate Director of UNeTecH. He protects scientists' inventions and works with entrepreneurs and creatives to develop business opportunities for intellectual property.

Finally, to read about the topic straight from the source, visit the U.S. Copyright Office, the U.K. Intellectual Property Office, and the Australian Copyright Council websites.

Are you in the finishing stages of completing a book? Check out our blog post that details the technical process of making a book.