Updated July 7, 2020:

Copyrights: How to Obtain a Copyright

Registering a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office allows you to file a lawsuit and take someone to court for violating your copyright. You must have registered that copyright first, otherwise, you cannot file a lawsuit. The following task list walks you through the copyright registration process using the U.S. Copyright Office electronic filing application.

A Guide to Copyrights and How to Obtain One

Registering a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office helps to protect your intellectual property and allows you to file a lawsuit and take someone to court for violating your copyright. You must have registered that copyright first otherwise you cannot file a lawsuit. The following task list walks you through the copyright registration process using the U.S. Copyright Office electronic filing application.

For basic information on copyrights, see the United States Copyright Office FAQ. You may want an attorney's assistance in this process. UpCounsel can connect you with an experienced copyright attorney in your area.

1. Determine whether your work is protectable by a copyright

A copyright will only protect original works of authorship, both published and unpublished, that are in a tangible form or expression. Items that may be eligible for copyright include:

  • Literary works
  • Musical works (including lyrics)
  • Dramatic works (including accompanying music)
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • Architectural drawings and plans
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings

These categories are broad. For example, a computer program will be properly registered as a literary work. Musicians, writers, artists, and other creators use copyrights to protect their work from unauthorized use. If a creator changes the work significantly, that person would need to file a new copyright application.

Another category of work is compilation copyrights, which covers a work that collects and assembles pre-existing materials or data. But not all compilations are capable of receiving a copyright. In order to qualify, the compilation must be put together in a way that the work in totality makes it an original work of authorship.

Among others, the following materials are not eligible for copyright protection:

  • Titles
  • Names
  • Short phrases
  • Slogans
  • Domain names
  • Familiar symbols or designs
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation
  • Mere listings of ingredients or contents
  • Ideas
  • Procedures
  • Methods
  • Systems or methods of operation
  • Processes
  • Concepts
  • Principles
  • Discoveries (as opposed to a description, explanation, or illustration)
  • Works consisting entirely of information that is common property

These materials may be protectable under trademarks or patents.

Copyright laws protect a work as soon upon its creation, as long as the author or creator is the first to have created it. The purpose of this provision is to protect authors, musicians, and other creators from having their work copied before they can file for a legal copyright. A registered copyright allows the copyright holder to enforce the individual's rights to the work.

2. Reduce work to a digital format

You will have to submit a digital copy of your work with your copyright application, so be sure to have this copy ready before beginning the application. This copy will not be returned. In some cases, you may have to submit a hard copy of your work, which will become property of the U.S. government.

3. Complete the online copyright application

Completing the online application costs $35. If you have a company that will be enforcing the copyright, then you should assign the copyright to the company in the application. Otherwise, you can assign the copyright to an individual. Be aware that when you register a claim to a copyright, it will become part of a public record available to others on the internet. The U.S. Copyright Office will email you to acknowledge receipt of your application. Processing times for copyright applications as of October 2012 are six to months for e-filing and 10 to 15 months for paper forms. You can submit an application 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Forms are available on the U.S. Copyright Office website.

If you choose to register by mail, you can print the form and complete it. Make sure to follow directions on the form to determine how many copies of your work need to be included. Filing by mail takes a longer time than filing online.

Upon approval of the copyright, the U.S. Copyright Office will send an official certificate of registration. Holding a legal copyright is a necessity to file an infringement lawsuit against someone who copied your work. If you win such a lawsuit, you may be eligible for attorney's fees and statutory damages.

4. Add a notice to copyrighted work

Since 1989, people have not had to add a notice to a copyrighted work, but adding the copyright (©) symbol may come with some benefits. If someone is thinking about copying your work, seeing the mark could act as a deterrent. In the case that someone does copy your work, the symbol makes it clear that copyright laws protect that item. An infringer has a more difficult time claiming lack of awareness that the work is under copyright.

When adding a notice, make sure to include the date of publication, name of author and copyright owner, and the word copyright along with the symbol in the first mention. After that presentation, the copyright symbol alone will suffice.

If you hold a copyright, others can ask for permission to use your copyrighted work, and you can accept or decline the permission request.

Copyright laws have changed over the past few decades. For works created and entered into copyright after 1978, the protection typically lasts for the entire life of the last living author plus 70 years. But works created before 1978 often have different duration rules, since the legal protections weren't as clear. Copyright owners will not need to renew their copyrights, since works published in or after 1964 hold the maximum term. Anything produced before 1964 cannot have the copyright extended.

If an anonymous or pseudoanonymous work receives a copyright, the term is whatever comes first between 95 years from the year of first publication or 120 years from the creation year.

A copyright holder must consider who will take over the rights after that person's death. When creating an estate plan or will, you may want to include this information. A copyright owner can also transfer the rights to another person or company, but the transfer won't be valid without a signature from the owner or owner's authorized agent.

Once you have a copyright on your work, you have the exclusive rights to sell it, make copies of it, and distribute it. The rights also allow you to create adaptations of your work, display it in public, or perform it live.

One limitation to the protections under copyright laws is the doctrine of fair use. Under this doctrine, copying copyrighted works is permitted for research and educational purposes. In order to decide if the fair-use doctrine is valid, courts look at the following factors:

  • The nature of the copyrighted work
    • When work is more factual and less creative, it is more likely to fall under the fair-use doctrine.
  • The effect of the use on the value or market of the copyrighted work
    • This factor looks at whether the copyright owner loses money due to the unauthorized use.
  • The character and purpose of the use
    • In cases where works get used for noncommercial, nonprofit, and educational purposes, fair use will likely apply.
  • The substantiality and amount of the portion of work used in comparison with the work in totality
    • The more material of a work that gets used, the less likely it is to fall under the fair-use doctrine.

Optional: If your work is not yet finished or released, you may want to pre-register for a copyright. This arrangement is not a form of registration, but rather one that indicates an intent to register a work upon its completion. You will then have to register the work within one month after the copyright owner becomes aware of infringement and no later than three months after the work is first published.

Some people claim that you can mail a copy of your creative work to yourself, and this act qualifies for legal copyright protection. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, this self-mailing is not a recognized way to get legal protection for your work.

If you need help obtaining a copyright, post your job on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.