This is the third post in an ongoing series about 5 Secrets Every Indie Author Should Know. The first two parts of this series are:
Excerpted from DIY Publishing, Chapter 14 by Maggie Lynch
Some writers mistakenly believe that getting an ISBN for a book automatically registers the copyright. It does not! They are two different processes. ISBNs are obtained in the United States through a private company, Bowker, that manages the database for all books identified by ISBN. The purpose of an ISBN is simply to have a unique identifier for a book so that it can be sold and tracked globally. Think of it as an inventory code that is the same for every retailer around the world.
Copyright registration has nothing to do with sales of your book or making it available to retailers. In fact, you can register a copyright for a book you never plan to sell or make available outside your immediate family. You are not required to have an ISBN to register a copyright.
Copyright registration is managed through the United States Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress. It is the official United States government body that maintains records of copyright registrations. It is used by copyright title searchers who are attempting to clear a chain of title for copyrighted works.
An analogy I like to use when describing copyright registration is the one most people understand for obtaining title for property. If you own a car in the United States, you receive title to that car from your state government. That title is in the form of a certificate which proclaims you are the owner. The title includes a description of your car, including the vehicle identification number (VIN). If you rent the car out or loan the car to someone else, you still own it and can have use of it. However, if you sell the car you must transfer the title to the new owner. Once that happens, you no longer have use of the car and no say in what happens to the car.
If there were no car titles, a thief could steal your car and claim it was his. You would have little recourse to get the car back because you would have no proof that you own the car. The proof of ownership is the title certificate.
Registering your copyright provides a certificate from the federal government recognizing that you own the rights to your book. In principle, your work is protected by copyright the moment it takes form. However, without this certificate of registration it is difficult to prove you are the owner if another person brings a copy of your work forward and claims it is hers.
As with holding title to a car, you have rights associated with your written work. Those rights allow you to “rent” your work to someone else. This is what happens when you sign a contract with a publisher. The publisher is paying for the right to use what you wrote to make a profit. However, you are still the owner of that work. Based on the contract, the publisher can only make money from your work for a certain period of time. There may also be ways in which you can end your relationship so that the publisher can no longer use your work.
You also have the right to “sell” your work to someone else. This usually happens when you do a work-for-hire contract or a ghost-writer contract. In these contracts a publisher or individual is paying you for the work as though you were an employee. Once that payment is complete (e.g., a specific fee or royalties over a specified time period), the buyer owns your work. You no longer have the legal right to sell that work again or use it in any way.
In both of these examples—and in self-publishing—registering your copyright is what helps to establish that you are, in fact, the original owner of the work. If a dispute occurs, you will want that certificate of registration and the date it was filed in order to prove you are the owner. If there are two separate registration certificates issued for the same book, by two different people (yes, it does happen), the earlier registration has a better chance of being successful in a lawsuit than the later one.
At this time I must provide a caveat. The above illustrations demonstrate how not having a certificate of registration may cause problems. However, I am not an attorney. Therefore, do not take anything I say as legal advice. As I discuss copyright law throughout this chapter, I will reference quotations from the United States Copyright Office or a website that provides legal advice.
If you are unclear about your own copyright situation or how copyright registration laws apply to a specific book, seek advice from an intellectual property attorney licensed to practice in the your country or jurisdiction. Do not rely on what you find on the Internet or in books such as mine to provide legal advice. The law is complex and interpretations change as cases are tried in court. It is important to analyze what the latest case law findings say when making a decision on your own situation. Only a licensed attorney can give you that advice.
Registering your copyright with the United States Copyright Office is voluntary. The copyright office summarizes the reasons for registration on their website:
“Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. However, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a work sold in the United States you will need to have registered. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney's fees in successful litigation. If registration occurs within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.”
(See Circular 1, Copyright Basics
In other words, even though your work is protected from the moment of creation, you can’t bring a lawsuit to recover lost income or assess damages against someone who steals your work unless it is registered.
In addition, registering within three months of publication is advised. According to NOLO, a publisher of legal information:
“You can register a copyright at any time, but registering it promptly may pay off in the long run. Timely registration—that is, registration within three months of the work's publication date or before any copyright infringement actually begins—makes it much easier to sue and recover money from an infringer. Specifically, timely registration creates a legal presumption that your copyright is valid, and allows you to recover up to $150,000 (and possibly lawyer fees) without having to prove any actual monetary harm.”
The least costly and quickest copyright registration method is through electronic registration at the United States Copyright Office website: https://eco.copyright.gov/ The cost for this is only $35.00 per book, and you may send an electronic copy of the book with your registration. You can pay by credit or debit card, or by electronic funds transfer using check routing and account information. Once the payment is accepted you will immediately receive a tracking number and a temporary registration number. Approximately 30 days later (depending on how many registrations the copyright office is processing) you will receive the official registration certificate in the mail.
An alternate registration method is through the mail. The cost to do a mailed registration is $65.00. You may download the form from the copyright office, and you must pay by check or money order. The office does not accept credit card payments through the mail. With the mailed form you must send two printed copies of the book to the copyright office. The processing time for this is significantly longer—often taking several months.
Even authors of commercial publishers should check if a copyright has been registered on their behalf. Most small presses, and even some large publishers do not do any copyright registration for their authors unless they are bestsellers. Check your contracts. If your books have not been registered, it is recommended that you register them now.
My personal process is to register my copyright within one week of release. Though I have not yet had a need to file an infringement lawsuit, I want to be sure the registration is as early as possible.
I’ve heard authors tell me they aren’t going to register their work because they don’t want to pay the fee, or they don’t believe their “little, unknown work” will be stolen, or because they are not in a financial position to hire an attorney and bring a lawsuit if it were stolen. Certainly, registration is voluntary. Personally, I look at it as inexpensive insurance.
I wish we lived in a world where no one plagiarized written work, or outright stole books and put a different author name on it. Unfortunately, it happens far too often, and electronic document transmission has made it even easier for criminals to do this.
In addition, the likelihood of infringement increases with the popularity of a book or an author. You never know when you will become popular. You may work in obscurity for six years and then suddenly a book hits the New York Times list or it wins a major award. Once you become popular, not only is the bestselling book a temptation for criminals, but your entire backlist is targeted as well. Criminals have been known to put a new author name on a book and immediately register the copyright. They will even keep the same title (titles cannot be copyrighted). If you have not registered, what recourse do you have? None.
For me, spending $35.00 and a little time online is a small price to pay for the assurance that I can bring a lawsuit to prove infringement.
Convinced to register? Let’s go through the online copyright process.
NOTE: Because the next instructions involve a number of screen shots, I've created a PDF file that you can download with the step-by-step instructions. It will save me time in uploading all the images to this blog, and I know the images in the PDF will be much more clear than they would be here.