I get calls from time to time from artists who feel they have to hide their works from the world until they receive confirmation that their works are registered with the Copyright Office. I also get calls from artists who believe they have an effective ďpoor manís copyrightĒ because theyíve cleverly mailed themselves a copy of their work. Then there are the calls from artists who have heard of copyright registration, donít know why they should bother with it. Some members of this last group donít feel particularly inclined to share their work with the government, especially these days.

All of these folks are either unduly paranoid or misguided or both, and could wind up getting hurt as a result. I have mentioned some of this stuff before in this column, but these are things that bear repeating. Here we go.

First, you donít have to hide your work away until youíve successfully registered it with the Copyright Office. Thatís just plain nuts, and confuses the concepts of when copyright in a work arises on one hand and registration on the other. Copyright in a work is established automatically when a work is in fixed form. In other words, you donít need to do anything to have a copyright in your work. Itís already there! You can go ahead and display or perform the work without fear that youíve given up any rights.

While registration of your work with the Copyright Office is not mandatory, and you donít lose your copyrights if you donít register, there are plenty of good reasons to do so. It creates a public record of your claim of copyright. Registration also gives you a lot more ammunition should someone infringe your work, and the laws are designed in a way to reward those who register early.

You should seriously consider registering your works with the Copyright Office whenever you distribute copies of your work, especially when you donít know exactly where the copies are going to wind up. If, for example, you are going to post your work on the Internet or if reproductions are going to appear in print or on disk, by all means you really should register your work if you want to protect it. This is because the act of publication (the distribution of copies) of your work is legally significant for copyright purposes. If your published work has been infringed, you will be in much better shape if you have already registered the work prior to any infringement, because the penalties for infringement are greatly enhanced for registered works. In many, if not most cases, these increased penalties make it possible to economically (and sometimes profitably) stop an infringement and recover damages. Otherwise youíll be paying dearly for what will often be a largely Pyrrhic victory Ė it will cost you much more to stop the infringement that you will be able to recover from the infringer.

If youíre not publicly distributing your work (and be aware that sending a slide of your etching to Mom or a copy of your literary transcript to a publisher is not considered publication), registration isnít so critical. Itís still not the worst idea, particularly if the public is going to be exposed to the work, but so long as the work remains unpublished, you arenít committing a mortal error by not registering your copyright.

Registering is not difficult, and groups of unpublished works can be covered in a single registration. It currently costs $30 per registration and you can find the forms and a wealth of information about the registration process at www.copyright.gov or at your public library. While you wonít receive your certificate of registration for several months after you mail in the forms and other required materials, registration is considered effective as of the date the Copyright Office receives a properly completed application.

Mailing your work to yourself is not the same thing as registering your copyright, and donít let anybody tell you that it is! Itís remarkable that this idea persists; Iíve even seen so-called ďcopyright expertsĒ on the web recommending that the ďpoor manís copyrightĒ as an economic alternative to registration. Donít believe them and donít do it! Itís a waste of your money and your time and it creates an absolutely false sense of security that youíve protected your works. You havenít done anything but fill up your mailbox.

And if youíre worried about Big Brother looking at your works, well, all I can say is that I havenít seen anything to indicate that Mr. Ashcroft and his minions have been snooping around the Library of Congress (where the Copyright Office is located) looking for evidence of ďevil-doersĒ or perpetrators of the national security threat-du-jour. Now, this sort of activity wouldnít surprise me one bit considering the cavalier attitude the Bush administration has towards our fundamental freedoms in general and the rights of artists specifically. But Iíd like to think I would know the sanctity of the Library of Congress has been compromised, and I havenít heard any inkling of spooks in the stacks. If I hear about any such thing, youíll be the first to know. And then Iíll start packing.

© 2004 Paul C. Rapp
This article originally appeared in The Artful Mind, and is intended to provide the reader with an awareness of copyright law and not legal advice.