Register your own copyright: When, why, and how?

Zick and Brenda

Zick Rubin and Brenda Marshall Ulrich, copyright attorneys, Rubin & Ulrich, LLC.

As textbook and academic authors, your copyrights are your livelihood, and the value of your copyrights is often enhanced by registering them in the U.S. Copyright Office – something that you can easily do for yourself.  Yet, as publishing and copyright attorneys, we find that many text and academic authors know less than they should about copyright registration.

Here’s our sample Q&A conversation with an author who wanted to know more about when, why, and how to register the author’s copyrights:

Q: What, exactly, is a “copyright,” and what is a “copyright registration”?

A: I’m glad you asked.  A copyright is your exclusive right to publish, adapt, and license work that you have created – anything from a photograph to a textbook. Your copyright ownership can be documented by registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Q: OK, but why should I bother to register the copyright? Don’t I own the copyright whether I register it or not?

A: Yes, you do own the copyright (unless you created the work as an employee or assigned your right to someone else), whether it is registered or not.  But before you can take action against anyone infringing your copyright – for example, by reprinting a large chunk of your article without permission – the copyright must be registered.

Q: That seems like a lot of work for something that is pretty unlikely to happen. Why can’t I just wait for someone to try to steal my work and then I’ll register the copyright and nail them?

A: Good thought, but if you do that, you’ll lose your most valuable legal remedies.

Q: That doesn’t sound good. Why does that happen?

A: The Copyright Act encourages prompt registration:  If and only if you register a copyright before an infringement begins (or within three months of your first publication of the work), you will have a claim for statutory damages.

Q: What are statutory damages?

A: A monetary award, which can be as much as $30,000 and even climb to $150,000 if your work is infringed willfully. But if you wait to register until after the infringement has begun, you won’t be entitled to any statutory damages at all.

Q: That’s a pretty powerful incentive to register. Can you tell me more?

A: There’s another incentive:  If and only if you register a copyright before the infringement begins, you may be able to recover your attorneys’ fees in an infringement lawsuit. That’s why the first question any copyright lawyer will ask before they agree to take your case is, “Did you register the copyright?”

Q: I get the point. But, wait a minute. Didn’t I assign the copyright in my textbook to my publisher?

A: You probably did. That’s the general rule for textbook publishing contracts.

Q: So isn’t the publisher the one who should be registering the copyright?

A: Yes, most textbook contracts provide that the publisher will register the copyright in its own name. You can make sure that your publisher has done that job by looking yourself up in the Copyright Office database.

Q: Great! I love looking myself up.

A: But that’s not the whole story. Haven’t you created other works that are important to you – whether published or not – that you have not assigned to a publisher?

Q: Well, nothing except my research articles, my website, my speeches, my photographs, my blog, my videos, my consulting materials, my published short stories, and my unpublished novel.

A: We rest our case. You can register your own copyright to all of these.

Q: That sounds like a good idea. People are always copying my videos and cribbing from my blogs.

A: Registering your copyrights will help you to protect yourself against that sort of thing.

Q: OK, you’ve convinced me. But will I need a lawyer to register the copyrights?

A: No, you can do it for yourself online. Go to www.copyright.gov and you’ll get detailed instructions. The registration fee is only $35 for each work that you register. Feel free to get back in touch with us if you have any questions.

Q: Thank you. By the way, who owns the copyright in this article: you or the Textbook & Academic Authors Association?

A: We do.

Q: Are you going to register the copyright?

A: You’re a quick learner.


Zick Rubin and Brenda Marshall Ulrich are publishing and copyright lawyers at Rubin & Ulrich, LLC.  Both Rubin and Ulrich are members of TAA, and Ruben was a psychology textbook author before becoming a lawyer. They can be contacted at zrubin@rubinulrich.com and bulrich@rubinulrich.com.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.