Imagine creating something for your business – like original photography, video, music, artwork, written content or computer code – and discovering someone stole it and is using it for their own purposes. All the time, effort, money and thought that went into your unique creation is wasted.
To protect your ideas and prevent others from replicating or stealing them, consider applying for a copyright. Registering for a copyright creates a record of your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. While registration isn’t required, not registering can be a crucial intellectual property mistake that can hurt your business.
We’ll explain how to apply for a copyright online and explore the benefits of copyright registration.
Did you know? Trademarks and copyrights have subtle differences. While copyrights protect your unique creations, trademarks are phrases or symbols that indicate a brand.
How to apply for a copyright online
When you register for a copyright, you can sue others for copyright infringement if they take and use your intellectual property without permission. Luckily, registering and applying for a copyright is straightforward online.
Here are four steps for online copyright registration.
1. Ensure your work is eligible for a copyright.
Not everything can be copyrighted; many people are confused about the difference between a copyright and a patent. Copyrights protect created work and media, like books, music and software. Patents exist to protect inventions, processes and objects, like scientific devices and unique products.
The following categories are allowed protection under copyright law.
- Literary works: Literary works include fiction and nonfiction novels, short stories, poems, essays, articles, advertisements, catalogs, and speeches. Computer programs are also considered literary works under copyright law.
- Musical works: The entirety of a musical composition, including the notes and associated lyrics, is protected under copyright law.
- Dramatic works: Dramatic works of theater, including plays, operas, scripts and screenplays – and all associated music – are protected under copyright law.
- Pantomimes and choreographic works: Choreography is protected under copyright law, but popular dance steps are considered public domain.
- Visual artistic works: Many visual artistic works are covered under copyright law, including sketches, drawings, paintings, photos, maps, charts, sculptures, jewelry, models and tapestries.
- Motion pictures and other audiovisual works: Movies, short films and videos are all eligible for copyright.
- Sound recordings: Audio recordings, including music, voice effects and sound effects, are eligible for copyright protection. Additionally, the person who recorded them could copyright natural sounds and animal noises.
- Compilations: A collection of copyrighted materials can be copyrighted itself as a whole collection. However, a compilation copyright does not extend to the individual works included in the compilation; the compilation as a whole is protected.
- Derivative works: Derivative works – based on another copyrighted work but altered by some element of creativity– are eligible for copyright protection.
- Architectural works: Under the Architectural Works Copyright Protection Act of 1990, entire buildings are available for copyright, not just the architectural plans.
To determine if your work is eligible for a copyright, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website.
Tip: A common website design mistake is not protecting your online content. Protect your intellectual property online using “copy and paste block” or “right-click block” in your website’s code. You can also protect images with a digital or graphic watermark.
2. Gather everything needed for your copyright application.
Before you fill out the online application, disable your pop-up blocker and third-party toolbars in your browser (the government website recommends you use Firefox).
To register a copyright, you must submit three things to the Copyright Office:
- A completed application form
- The filing and registration fee
- Copies of the work you’re registering
Since your work must be reviewed for copyright approval, you should have either a digital file ready to attach or, if you’re submitting a hard copy, access to a printer for the shipping label.
How much does it cost to get a copyright?
It costs $65 to submit a standard copyright application. (There’s a $45 processing fee for a single author who is the sole claimant in a single work.) Paper filing costs $125 (request form copies on the website). Visit the U.S. Copyright Office fee schedule for a complete list of various fees for copyright registration and other services.
3. Choose the correct copyright application type.
The two most common applications for copyright are the standard application and the single application. Ensure you’re filing the correct application type.
- Standard copyright application: The standard application may be used to register most works, including a work by one author, a joint work, a work made for hire, a derivative work, a collective work or a competition.
- Single copyright application: The single application may be used to register one work (such as one poem, one song or one photograph) created by one individual.
4. File your copyright application online.
The online filing process is straightforward, and the U.S. Copyright Office website has excellent documentation if you encounter any issues. Start by creating an account and then follow the instructions provided.
FYI: Obtain intellectual property insurance to help pay legal costs if someone infringes on or steals your intellectual property.
The benefits of copyright registration
Copyright registration protects your unique creations. The benefits of copyright registration include the following:
- Copyright registration allows you to bring an infringement action. By registering your copyright, you can file a business lawsuit to protect your intellectual property in federal court. You must file for copyright registration before you can bring a copyright lawsuit. If you sue for copyright infringement and win, you could collect actual damages or statutory damages from $750 up to $150,000 per infringement. Because of the hefty penalties for copyright infringement, notifying the public that you have a registered copyright can also act as a powerful deterrent to would-be thieves.
- Copyright registration provides evidence of validity. Registering for a copyright provides evidence that you truly hold the copyright for a given piece of intellectual property. Filing your registration before or within five years of publishing your work will help you if you must bring a copyright infringement lawsuit to court. Your registration satisfies a basic level of proof to the court of the validity of your copyright.
- Copyright registration lets you claim statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. If you win your copyright infringement case, the judge can order the other party to pay statutory damages (financial compensation) as well as your attorneys’ fees if your copyright has been registered.
- Copyright registration creates a public record. Copyright registration notifies the world that your work is indeed copyrighted and that you own the copyright.
- Copyright registration satisfies deposit requirements. When you create something that you want copyrighted, the Copyright Act requires you to submit two copies of it to the Library of Congress within three months of the work being published. When you register for a copyright, the Copyright Office handles this for you.
- Copyright registration protects against importation of infringing works. The United States has agreements with many other countries regarding copyright protection, but not all. If a foreign person or entity infringes on your registered copyright and tries to import these items into the U.S., you can have U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel seize and detain them.
Did you know? Employee contracts often include clauses that address the ownership of intellectual property. These agreements are crucial when employees are terminated and leave the company armed with proprietary knowledge.
Here are some common copyright questions.
Can you claim copyright without registering?
According to the Copyright Alliance, since copyright protection is automatic from the moment you create your work, registration isn’t required to protect it. However, this is relatively meaningless because unregistered copyrights are not protected in a court of law. If someone steals your work and uses it, you can send them a letter telling them to stop. But if they refuse and the work is not registered with the Copyright Office, it’s your word against theirs, and it’s challenging to prove you’re the original creator.
How long does it take to get a copyright?
The timeline for completing the registration process through the U.S. Copyright Office’s online registration system is about three months. However, the average processing time for hard-copy registrations is about 10 months. Your copyright registration becomes effective once the Copyright Office receives your completed application and appropriate fees. If you file electronically, you’ll receive an email confirming that your application has been received. If you submit a paper registration, you won’t receive confirmation from the Copyright Office, so be sure to ship your registration application with a carrier that provides a delivery record.
How long do copyrights last?
Copyrighted works are protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years.
Can you copyright your website?
Yes. Any original content on your website can be protected by copyright. This includes written content, like your business blog, artwork, photographs and other forms of authorship that are eligible for copyright. However, you can’t copyright domain names. If you have contracted a web developer, designer or photographer to create eligible original content for you under a “work for hire” arrangement, you can copyright it.
Can you copyright your company name, slogan or logo?
No, you can’t copyright your brand name, slogan, business name or logo. However, you may be able to protect these items with a trademark. Contact the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office at TrademarkAssistanceCenter@uspto.gov for more information.
Where can I get help with my copyright application?
If you run into a roadblock in the application process, call the Copyright Office at 877-476-0778 for help between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday.
Jennifer Dublino contributed to the reporting and writing in this article.