Should I Copyright My Writing or Visual Art?

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find more photo-4For someone who has struggled to develop a creative work, the thought that someone might steal it for their own benefit is alarming. In the age of the Internet, theft of an artist’s work can be as simple as a click and save, and software makes it easy to paste your work into someone else’s product.

You may have heard that a work can be protected simply by putting a copyright notice on it. We have all seen this countless times: “© Joan Author, 2016. All rights reserved.”

Once you have put an original work into a fixed form, such as a manuscript, a visual image, a computer file, etc., you have a copyright in that work whether you attach a notice or not. However, the notice serves as a reminder and deterrent to those who might consider helping themselves to your work. It also helps legally. If a work bears a copyright notice, the infringing person cannot claim to be an “innocent infringer,” who might be subject to minimal damages. But there is more you can do to protect your copyright: you can register it.


You can register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. The Copyright Office offers a large number of very readable circulars and factsheets as PDF files explaining many concepts and requirements for copyrights in terms most people will easily understand. For instance, Circular 14 provides specific information on obtaining a copyright on derivative works (a work based on another copyrighted work), while Circular 40 addresses specific concerns regarding pictorial, graphic, or sculptural work. Browsing the indices for the circulars and fact sheets will lead you quickly to the specific information you need.

You can register a copyright by either mail or electronic applications. The Copyright Office strongly recommends the online application option, and indeed it is fast and easy, generally taking approximately half an hour to complete and providing immediate protection. The fee for a single item is $35, hardly a burdensome cost considering the time, effort, and expense you put into creating your works.

Why, you might ask, should I pay a fee and complete an application to protect my work when I can just slap a copyright notice on it? Registration provides several valuable advantages should you find that someone has infringed your work.

First, registration provides you with strong proof of the date of creation, when your copyright protection begins. Second, the Copyright Act fixes dollar penalties for infringement ranging from $750 to $150,000 per incident, depending on culpability. Without registration, you would have to prove an actual financial loss. Last but not least, the owner of a registered copyright can recover attorney fees from the infringer. Since attorney fees may easily exceed the damages recoverable, the option of an award of attorney fees may make the difference between having a remedy for someone stealing your work and being unable to do anything about it.

With the benefits that registration provides, and the ease and minimal expense of obtaining it, the creative artist should consider copyright registration as an early step in the process of marketing a completed work. Your splendid creations deserve no less.

—Edwin Frownfelter

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