June 30, 2011

Copyright Misconceptions: Do You Have to Register Your Work with the Federal Government

As a future entertainment lawyer, I get asked a lot of legal questions by my artist friends (and friends of friends, family members, etc.). The more conversations I have with artists, the more I find that many are confused or unsure when it comes to important copyright concepts and laws. So I will be debunking the myths and misconceptions that I am asked the most about, starting with one from the very beginning of the legal life of the work:

You have to register your work with the federal government to protect your work

Not true! The moment you create your work and fix it in a "tangible medium of expression," your work is copyrighted. This means that the moment that you write down a poem, record a song, or shoot a film, whatever you just created is - BAM! - automatically copyrighted on the spot. How cool is that?
So why register your work with the federal government? Well, there are a few reasons:

  1. The ability to sue: You can't sue someone for infringing on your copyrighted work if you haven't registered your work with the federal government. You can register your copyright and then sue, but there are other perks if your work is copyrighted prior to the infringement.
  2. Statutory damages/attorney's fees: If you win and your work was copyrighted prior to the infringement, you will have the choice between asking for actual damages or statutory damages. Statutory damages can range anywhere between $200 to $150,000 per work infringed.  Plaintiffs usually choose statutory damages because these awards are often more than what they can prove in actual damages suffered from the infringement.  A successful plaintiff can also be reimbursed his or her attorney's fees.
  3. Proof: If you register your work within five years of its creation, that is prima facie evidence that it is your original work. This means that the court will believe that you created it unless the other side is able to persuade it otherwise.
Ultimately, it's up to creators to decide whether the cost and trouble of federally copyrighting their works is worth it, but it's important to know that all copyrightable works are protected from the moment of creation as long as they are original and fixed in a physical medium.

- Lauren
Email: lauren@internlikearockstar.com | Twitter: @Musicn3rd
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