To Register, or Not to Register, Your Copyright

You just paid cash for, and are now the proud owner of, a new car.  Will you bother to register your new pride and joy with the state of Texas?  Of course you will.  Why?  In addition to the obvious reason that it’s required by law, you’ll register it because registration in your name is the proof that you own the car and it gives you certain rights and protections that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

You’ve just finished that screenplay or book you’ve been breaking your back for the last six months to write.  Will you bother to register your copyright with the Copyright Office at the Library of Congress?  If you’re like most writers, you may register the screenplay with the Writer’s Guild, but you probably won’t register your copyright in the screenplay or the book with the Copyright Office.  And if you don’t, you will deprive yourself of certain rights and protections that you would otherwise have – and which registering with the WGA won’t give you.

What is copyright? Copyright is a statutorily-created protection (found in Title 17 of the U.S. Code) available to authors of “original works of authorship” which gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work; to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work; to distribute copies of the copyrighted work; to publicly perform the copyrighted work; and to publicly display the copyrighted work.  The copyright is created automatically as soon as the work is “created in fixed form.”  In layman’s terminology, that means it’s created as soon as you write words on paper.  You don’t have to register it to create it – it’s created first, then is registered later.

What works can be copyrighted? Among other things, copyright protects literary works, musical works, dramatic works, motion pictures and other audiovisual works, and sound recordings.  It doesn’t protect ideas, titles, names, short phrases, and slogans.  If you want to protect your ideas, fix them into some “tangible medium of expression.”  In other words, develop them and write them down on paper, either in the form of a detailed synopsis, a treatment, or a completed screenplay. Protecting slogans and names is a trademark issue, not a copyright issue.

Who owns the copyright? Unless the work is one made for hire, the author owns it.  In the case of co-authors, both are co-owners of the copyright, unless they have made an agreement to the contrary.  In the case of a work made for hire (e.g., a studio hired you to write a screenplay on assignment), the employer (i.e. the studio) owns the copyright.   Only the owner of the copyright, or the agent of the owner, can register the copyright.

How do I register the copyright? Follow the instructions for e-filing on the Copyright Office’s website:

What rights does registering my copyright afford me? (1) It establishes a public record of the copyright claim; (2) you can’t file suit for copyright infringement unless you have first registered the copyright; (3) if you register within five years of “publication” (which means offering the work for sale in the marketplace), the registration is prima facie evidence in court of the validity of the copyright; and (4) unless you register your copyright within three months of publication, or before the copyright is infringed, you cannot recover your attorneys’ fees in a court action.  In contrast, registering your screenplay with the WGA only offers one protection – it provides a record of your claim of ownership as of the date of WGA registration.  You can’t sue for copyright infringement if you have only registered your work with the WGA, nor can you recover your attorneys’ fees in a court action, nor does WGA registration validate your copyright in the screenplay.

Do I need to put the copyright symbol on my screenplay? For works created after March 1, 1989, it’s not mandatory to provide copyright notice – but it is advisable.  Proper notice informs the public that the work is copyright protected, identifies the copyright owner, and sets the date of publication.  It eliminates the ability of someone to claim they “innocently infringed” on a copyright.  In other words, if you have given notice,  “I didn’t know I was stealing someone’s work” can’t be spoken in a courtroom.  You give notice by using the copyright symbol (the letter C in a circle) or the word “Copyright” or the abbreviation “Copr.”; the year of first publication; and the name of the owner of the copyright.

How long does my copyright registration last? While registration with the WGA is good for five years, your copyright registration will last for 70 years after you’re dead.  In the case of co-authors, it lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s death.  In the case of a work for hire, it lasts for 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  You should always consult with an attorney on your particular question, because the answer can vary on a case-by-case basis.

%d bloggers like this: