Writers in the Storm

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March 14, 2014

Copyright Registration – In the Contract and Beyond

By Susan Spann

Today, we’ll continue the #PubLaw guest series on Copyright in the Contract with a look at copyright registration.

As I mentioned in last month’s post (you can read it HERE), copyright protection is automatic and attaches to qualifying works (like novels) at the time of creation. Formal registration is not required to create a copyright in an author’s work.

However, copyright registration does have several important benefits and should be addressed, specifically, in every publishing contract.


Authors should ensure that novels and other published works are promptly—and properly—registered with the copyright office on, or within three months after, the date of initial publication. Publishing an excerpt on your blog does not constitute “publication” for registration purposes – the term refers to the date the entire work is officially published – though if you publish your entire novel online, serially or otherwise, it is “published” for copyright purposes.

For electronic works, the publication date is the date the work becomes available for download (or available to read online in its entirety) – for a fee or for free – on the first authorized sale or download site.

For printed works, the publication date is the date the book releases in printed format.

You do not need to register twice, if a book is available in print and ebook format – but remember: the operative date of “publication” is the date the first format becomes available for sale (or download).

Benefits of registration include:

1.  Placing the world on notice of your ownership. Registration puts everyone on notice that you own the work and claim the rights associated with ownership. Although intent is not an element of copyright infringement, registration makes it much harder for infringers to claim innocence. Registration may also help transfer or license ownership rights, because film studios and others who want to license rights know they’re dealing with the actual owner of the work.

 2.  Statutory damages and attorney fees. If a work is registered within three months after its initial publication date, the author is eligible to claim special monetary damages, and recover attorney fees, in a successful lawsuit against infringers. If the work isn’t registered, the infringer can be forced to stop, but the special monetary damages and attorney fees are not available.

 3.  The ability to sue for infringement. Copyright law states that authors and publishers can only file lawsuits over infringement after the work is registered with the copyright office.

4. An easier test for infringement. If copyright is registered within five years after the work’s initial publication date, the registration is “prima facie” evidence that the copyright is valid. This means that the author can prove ownership in court by producing evidence of registration, and the defendant has a much harder time defending against a claim of infringement. This is a powerful legal benefit for an author.


 If you elect to self-publish your work, you will need to register copyright yourself.

If you publish through a publisher, with a contract, you must be sure the contract states who will register the copyright and when registration will take place.

Many small publishers require the author to register his or her own copyright. Many publishers (including all “Big 5” houses) register copyright on the author’s behalf. Regardless of how registration occurs, your contract must contain specific language addressing copyright registration.

Appropriate copyright registration language includes at least 3 elements:

1. Who will register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright office (the author or the publisher.)

2. When the copyright will be registered. This needs to be “within 90 days of the date of initial publication of the first edition of the Work in any form or format” in order to preserve your legal rights.

3. Who pays the registration fee and provides the copies to the Copyright Office. Normally, the one who files the registration pays the $35 fee, which is due at the time of registration.

Printed works must be sent to the copyright office in physical form, while ebook-only publications can be submitted electronically. However, someone has to submit the work to the copyright office at the time of registration—and the contract must be clear about who has that responsibility. If the contract states that the publisher will register the copyright, then the publisher will also provide the copies. Normally, if the author handles registration, the author must provide the copies—but ask the publisher to provide you with extra copies of the novel for this purpose.

Make sure your work is promptly, and properly, registered within 90 days after initial publication. If your work is already published, and not yet registered, register now to preserve as many rights as possible.

Registrations can be filed online at copyright.gov.

Have questions about this or other copyright topics? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Susan Spann is a publishing attorney and author from Sacramento, California. Her debut mystery novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, July 2013), is the first in a series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. The sequel, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, will release in July 2014.

Susan Spann (headshot)Susan blogs about writing, publishing law and seahorses at http://www.SusanSpann.com. You can also find her on Twitter, @SusanSpann, or on Facebook.

18 comments on “Copyright Registration – In the Contract and Beyond”

  1. Hi Susan! Perfect timing on this discussion as I'm getting ready to file the copyright on my digital book which is scheduled to release on 4/28. My question is, the publisher is releasing only a digital version. I've retained all other format rights (thanks to you!) so if I register the copyright for the book will it cover all formats even if they have not been created yet? Or, if I decide at some point to issue the book in print or audio, would I have to file separate copyrights for those formats and provide copies of them then? Thanks for sharing your expertise with us!

    1. Hi Betty! If you register on the digital edition, it covers all formats produced later, yes. The copyright office only cares or requires re-registration if another edition has substantially different content (I'd say 10% changes or greater). Changes in format (or publisher, without more) don't require re-registrations.

    1. Copyright registration is often overlooked, because it's not "required" for the creation or existence of the copyright. It's definitely something independent authors need to know about, though!

      1. Well, all three of my books are now registered...with their hardcopies in the mail as of Friday. Thanks so much for the info! It's now in my release checklist, too, and will be in my next "What I've Learned" blog post. :-]

  2. Susan, my backlist was registered by my original Traditional publisher but I'm updating the book to make it read more like my current writing style and meet "today's" readers' expectations. Do I need to register it? And what if I register it under my new writing name and/or with a new title?

    1. Hi Sharla! If you're changing the book substantially, you can register it as a "new edition" or as "previously registered material with new material" (that's an option on the Copyright Office website). You'd handle it like a new registration, but on the information pages, you'll state that it contains some previously registered material (get the registration information for the original registrations before you get started, because you'll need it). The form will prompt you to put in the original registration information and describe (in summary) what is new.

      1. You can register copyright through a service, but in most cases, it's far less expensive and easier to just register yourself, directly through the copyright office. Most services charge extra fees that are either too high or not necessary, because registration is easy to do on your own.

  3. Thank you for all your advice.
    I have self published five novels in a series through an indie publisher but I have not received a royalty statement from them in four years, when I should receive a statement twice a year.
    Three of the contracts, which ran for two years each, are now out of date, anyway. So I am considering ending my relationship with them.
    In that case, how do I or any bookseller order more copies? Can I go direct to the printers (though I don't know who they are and there is no acknowledgement in the books)?
    I understand that I have the copyright of the MS so presume I can take the novels away from them. However, do they hold the copyright of the format that goes to the printer?
    Also, how about the covers? They supplied the artwork to my suggestions but I presume they are not included in my copyright and a new publisher would have to provide new covers.
    Your advice would be much appreciated.

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