Most written works in the United States, including poetry, are automatically copyrighted as soon as they are created. But registering your poem with the U.S. Copyright Office may be important to protecting your copyright. You have to register before you can sue someone for copyright violation, and registering will help you prove your case. In addition, you can generally recover attorney fees and statutory damages only if you registered your copyright before the violation occurred. "Statutory damages" let you recover money from someone who violates your copyright, without making you prove that the violation harmed you economically. If you think there's a chance that someone will copy your poem without permission, copyright registration is probably a good idea. You can register your poem electronically or by mail. The U.S. Copyright Office recommends electronic registration because it is cheaper and faster.
Prepare copies of your poem. The number of copies depends on whether the poem has been published. For copyright purposes, "published" just means that copies of a work have been distributed to the public. So passing out copies of your poem would probably count, but publicly displaying a copy would not.
If your poem has been published, you will need two complete copies of the "best edition." If it has not been published, you only need one copy, and you can use an electronic copy to save time and expense.
Fill out the registration form. Navigate to the U.S. Copyright Office website, click on eCO login and follow the instructions to log in to eCO and begin registration of a new claim. When asked for the "Type of Work" that you are registering, select "Literary Work." Then fill out the online form with information about you and your poem. There will be several screens of questions.
Pay the filing fee. After you finish the form and select "Checkout," you will be given the option of paying the filing fee by credit or debit card, funds transfer or a deposit account. Follow the directions to make payment.
Submit the "deposit." This is the copy or copies of your poem that you prepared earlier. If you are submitting an electronic copy, follow the directions to upload it. Otherwise, follow the directions to print a shipping slip. If you are mailing the deposit, make sure to send it within 30 days.
Registering by Mail
Print the appropriate form and fill it out. You can use Short Form TX if you are the only author of your poem, you didn't write the poem for hire and the poem is completely new. Otherwise, use Form TX.
Prepare copies of your poem. If your poem has been published, you will need two complete copies of the "best edition." If it has not been published, you only need one copy. The rules for deciding whether your poem has been published are the same as if you were registering electronically.
Send the completed form, the copy or copies of your poem and a check for the registration fee to the U.S. Copyright Office. You won't hear from the copyright office until it has processed your application, which can take many months. Once the office is done you will get a certificate of registration in the mail.
If the registration process is too confusing, get help from a copyright attorney or a legal document preparation service.
David Hastings has been writing professionally since 2007. His work includes articles on law, public policy, and debate, as well as analyses of more than 250 court cases for The Freedom Foundation. He holds a J.D. from Oak Brook College of Law.