There are two important things for self-publishing authors to know about copyrighting a book:
- why it is necessary, and
- how to secure it
Why not begin with how to copyright your book?
We'll come back to this but know that technically, under US copyright law,
Your book is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. (Source: Copyright.gov)
Disclaimer: This article is not legal advice and the writer is not an attorney.
1. Your book must be registered with the US copyright office before you can file an infringement suit in court.
2. If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.
3. If made before or within five years of publication, registration will establish prima facie evidence in court of the validity of the copyright and of the facts stated in the certificate.
2021 update: Readers should also learn about the new protections offered by the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act of 2020 (the CASE Act). This law was signed into effect on December 27, 2020.
What does it cost to copyright a book?
Currently, the cost to register a copyright electronically is $45 for a single author filing for one work that was not produced under a work-for-hire basis. All other filings are $65 if submitted electronically and $125 if submitted as a paper filing. (Source: fee schedule, Copyright.gov)
How do you file?
Visit Copyright.gov to fill out the form online and include your book in one of these formats:
- .doc (Microsoft Word Document 2003 or earlier)
- .docx (Microsoft Word Open XML Document)
- .htm, .html (HyperText Markup Language)
- .pdf (Portable Document Format)
- .rtf (Rich Text Document)
- .txt (Text File)
- .wps (Microsoft Works Word Processor Document, version 9 or earlier)
- .fdr (Final Draft)
For other file types unrelated to what is typically considered a book, see this list.
Why not wait and file if or when someone is infringing?
As of this writing (2021) it is taking about six months to process electronic applications and longer to process written applications. If you were to wait and register after discovering an infringement, the cost to expedite processing—necessary if you are taking legal action as described in number one above—is currently $800 for registration and $550 for recordation. (Source: Circular 10, Special Handling)
Don't I own the copyright even without having to register?
Yes, but you cannot take legal action unless or until it is registered.
Do I really have a chance against a larger or better financed individual or business that steals my work?
With a registered copyright you can collect statutory damages and attorney’s fees if there is a court action (see number two above). While your case may never get to this point the fact that you can collect these damages and fees is a powerful deterrent to infringing parties. (Also see the 2020 CASE Act for options.)
- The above information is not intended to serve as legal counsel and is subject to change at anytime. For more information please also read Circular 1, Copyright Basics available from Copyright.gov.
- Registration also allows the owner of the copyright to record the registration with the U. S. Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies. For additional information, go to the U. S. Customs and Border Protection website.
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