Self-publishers, take note: While it’s true that you hold an inherent copyright to your work just for the fact that you wrote it, should anyone try to infringe on your copyright you will be best served by registering with the US Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). That may sound intimidating, but it is actually a fairly straightforward process.
How to Register
Start by going to the US Copyright Office website. The Copyright Office accepts both online and paper applications, and the applications come with easy-to-understand instructions. The filing fee (as of 2019) is $55 for online registration and $85 for hard copy.
In addition to the application and the filing fee, you will be asked to provide a copy of the “deposit” — what the Copyright Office calls the work to be registered. If you file electronically you can send an electronic file or a hard copy of your work; file with paper and you have to send a hard copy. (The Copyright Office prefers online applications, but you are not bound by that.)
The application itself is easy to follow and there is an extensive FAQ section to answer questions. Read the instructions carefully and you can complete the online form in less than 20 minutes.
When to Register
You can register your book either before or after publication. Although simple, it can be a lengthy process, as getting the certificate can take nearly four months for the electronic application and nearly seven months for paper applications. During particularly busy times, those lags can be even longer.
The good news is, unless you have reason to believe you will not be granted copyright, you don’t have to wait until you receive your certificate before publishing the work. The date of registration is the date the office receives the completed application, not the date you receive your certificate. Still, copyright registration is not something you want to let slip through the cracks. I would recommend beginning earlier rather than later.
Upon publication, if you have a print book, submit a hard copy to be held in the Library of Congress.
What Not to Include
When you apply for copyright, you are making a public record. That means anyone can view the information you supply. The Copyright Office website offers this pointed advice:
Personally identifying information, such as your address, telephone number, and email address, that is submitted on the registration application becomes part of the public record. Some information will be viewable in the Copyright Office’s on‑line databases that are available on the Internet. For this reason, you should provide only the information requested. Please do NOT provide any additional personal information that is not requested, such as your social security number or your driver’s license number.
As identity theft is a real problem in this country, heeding this advice only makes sense.
How and Where Your Copyright Notice Should Appear
Your copyright notice belongs on the reverse of the title page in your book. A valid copyright notice includes the word “Copyright” or the symbol “©”; the year of registration; and the copyright holder’s name, in that order:
© 2020 Katherine Pickett
Some publishers choose to use both the word and the symbol for copyright as well as the word “by” — Copyright © 2020 by Katherine Pickett — but that is not required.
Pitfall: Preregistration vs. Registration
The Copyright Office provides the option of “preregistration” for works that have not yet been completed. (Important: This is separate from registration of unpublished works.) The fee for preregistration is a whopping $140. I suspect this fee is intended to be a deterrent, as even the Copyright Office notes that preregistration is not helpful for most people. Rather, preregistration is recommended only for those who meet these two criteria:
- You think it is likely someone will infringe on your copyright before the work is made public, and
- The work isn’t finished.
Note also that even if you preregister, you will still need to go through the registration process. Except in extreme circumstances, you will most likely want to register your work rather than preregister it.
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