Many people assume that an original work must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office for the creator to have a copyright. Registration does not grant a creator a copyright.
It simply provides a public record of the copyright ownership so that the creator of an original work can defend his interests if anyone infringes upon his rights.
"Copyright" is the right of a creator of an original artistic work to the exclusive use, benefit and republication of the work. These rights are based on equitable principles rooted in English common law and attach automatically upon publication of the work. This means that a creator has an automatic copyright in his work, whether or not he decides to register his copyright with a government agency. Registration brings significant advantages, however, that make it an essential step in protecting the creator's rights.
There are four basic advantages to copyright registration. Registration allows a copyright holder to sue an infringer in federal court, an option that is not available to copyright holders that have not registered. It serves as an automatic indication that the registrant is the actual owner of the copyright, making it the infringer's responsibility to prove differently. It enables the copyright holder to sue an infringer for statutory damages so that he doesn't have to prove that the infringer's use of the work actually damaged him. Finally, registration provides notice to the world of the copyright holder's claim of rights, preventing an infringer from claiming that he used the work innocently, without knowledge of the creator's existing interests.
There are no actual disadvantages to copyright registration. Registration conveys additional rights and benefits, making it easier for the owner of an original work to protect it against infringers. Registration does not take any rights away from the creator of the work. Perceived disadvantages can only be viewed from a functional or theoretical perspective. Functionally, the need to complete a registration takes time and costs money. Theoretically, some activists think copyrights stifle the creative landscape, preventing people from taking works and using them to make new works that will further contribute to society.
It is important to realize that the federal government has preempted state registration of copyrights. The only place a copyright registration can be completed is through the U.S. Copyright Office. Moreover, if a copyright is not registered, an owner cannot sue an infringer in state or federal court. Since the government has preempted copyright through a federal statute, the only option for a copyright holder is to put himself under the federal statute by registering and creating the standing to sue in federal court. Without registration, the copyright holder has no recourse to stop infringers from using his work.