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How to “Copyright” Your Work

Like “trademark,” it’s better not to think of the word “copyright” as a verb. Copyright is something that you have or you don’t. But when people talk about “copyrighting” their work or a work being “copyrighted” (or, worse, “copywritten”), it’s often shorthand for registration of a work with the Copyright Office. This article discusses how to obtain a registration and why you might want to do so.

Ever since the 1976 Copyright Act, copyright arises automatically when an expressive work (a novel, a song, video, etc.) is fixed in a tangible medium (set down on paper, pressed to vinyl, saved to hard drive, etc.) and, by default, it’s owned by the author of a work. Unlike works created prior to 1978, everything created for the last 40 years has been subject to copyright, without any need to register it, mark it with a © symbol or even publish it.

However, many authors still obtain registrations for their works with the federal Copyright Office. Copyright registration provides a number of important advantages. Most strikingly, in most cases, you can’t file a lawsuit for copyright infringement without a registration. You can still register the work after the fact and then file suit, but it can be difficult to collect damages for infringements that took place beforehand. Whether or not you should bother registering your work depends in large part on its commercial value and the likelihood that you will have to enforce your rights.

Copyrights can be registered online. Applicants need to fill out a form describing the nature of the work, its authorship, and the basis of their claim to own the copyright. They will then need to mail or upload a copy of the work (or a proxy, such as a photograph of a sculptural work).

Copyright applications are not subject to the same intensive examination as trademark applications or patents and are rarely rejected for substantive legal reasons. Thus, many copyright owners choose to submit their applications themselves. While this is a perfectly reasonable cost-saving measure in many circumstances, an attorney can help make sense of the Copyright Office’s sometimes-confusing questions, streamline the process and make sure that the scope of protection afforded by your registration is as broad as possible.

If you have questions about protecting your work, send us an email at or give us a call at 831-275-1401 or schedule a free consultation.


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