Once you've created a new literary work, video, musical composition or piece of art, it is important that your creative rights to that work be protected through registration of a copyright that establishes ownership and date of completion. Thanks to technology, what was once a lengthy process that involved photocopying, mailing and waiting for up to 12 weeks for a registration certificate can now be done instantly via the Internet. The forms are easy to understand and take no more than a few minutes to fill out and submit with the appropriate fees.
Determine whether the material you want to register is actually eligible for copyright. To qualify, it must be a completed product of your own creation that is expressed in a tangible form. For example, titles, themes, ideas and concepts on their own are not eligible for copyright protection, nor are stand-alone chapters of a book in progress or random lyrics of a song the musician has yet to compose.
Identify the appropriate agency to register your intellectual property with for copyright protection. While the U.S. Copyright Office and Writers Guild of America both register literary, stage, film, music and radio projects, Writers Guild of America is the preferred entity for screenplays and teleplays because the numbers it issues are the registration proof most often requested by agents, producers and film competitions for unproduced works.
Save your work to an electronic format if you plan to register it online. For manuscripts, formats such as Adobe Acrobat, Word and Rich Text are all acceptable. Photographic images of artwork can be submitted as jpeg, gif or tiff files. If you prefer to submit your work by mail and pay by check, you'll have to supply hard copies of your material along with a printout of the application.
Proceed to the U.S. Copyright Office or Writers Guild of America website to register your work. Fill out the requested information and follow each of the prompts. Depending on the file size of your project, the uploading process may take a few minutes. Enter your payment information when requested and hit the "Send" button. When you receive your registration number, print it out and store it in a safe place.
The word "copyright" is not interchangeable with "patent" or "trademark," even though all three pertain to idea protection, and is frequently misused by novices. A patent protects discoveries and man-made inventions whereas a trademark protects designs, symbols and words specific to commercial products and services. To obtain a patent or trademark, you must go through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Never mail original documents or original artwork for copyright registration. You will not get them back.
Register your work only with the U.S. Copyright Office or with Writers Guild of America, not both.
Do not start shopping your material to strangers unless you have registered it first.
Never go the cheap route called "poor man's copyright" in which you mail a copy of your material to yourself just to get the postmark. This method is not viable in a court of law if your authorship or the date of completion is ever contested.
- "The Copyright Handbook: What Every Writer Needs to Know"; Stephen Fishman; 2008
- "Copyright Law in a Nutshell"; Mary LaFrance; 2008
- key to the safe image by Peter Baxter from Fotolia.com