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Where to register copyright

A guide of what to look for when choosing a copyright registration facility.


There are a number of copyright registration organisations about, and to the inexperience it hard to tell the good from the bad. One thing is for certain; you should not base your decisions solely on price.

I have over 8 years experience in the legal services sector, specialising in copyright issues. Over that time I have seen a number of very dubious companies start up and disappear without a trace, so it is important to choose a reputable company. It is because of my experiences, that I have written this guide on what to look for when choosing a copyright registration facility.

My other concern is that at the moment, most information published on this topic relates specifically to the US legal system, and is often not correct for the rest of the planet. I would even go as far as saying that a lot of what is written about copyright registration by US authors relates explicitly to US domestic policy and has no relevance for non-US readers. In many ways, the US is the ‘odd man out’ in regard to copyright legislation.

Understanding copyright and the purpose of registration

Before we start, it is perhaps worth explaining some copyright basics and the purpose of registration.

What is copyright?

Copyright is an automatic right. Under international law, your work is protected by copyright across the world from the point that you create it. So, if you created it, you have copyright (or your employer does if the work is created as part of your employment) – it’s that simple.

What is purpose of registration?

As copyright is an automatic right, the problem is that when it comes to proving your claim, a court will only have your word for it.

Imagine the following situation. Someone copies your work and publishes it as their own, you discover the infringement and ask them to remove it. They say they wrote it, and refuse to co-operate. Your only recourse is to take legal action. Unfortunately the court or a tribunal only has your word that you are the creator, so if the other party makes the most convincing argument, you loose your claim, and you could even end up paying their legal costs.

The reason people register their work is to remove a lot of this risk and uncertainly. The idea is that when you register your work you create an independent and professionally verifiable record of the content of your work as it existed on that date. This can then be produced as evidence if you ever need to prove your claim.

Additionally, for many US citizens there is also a requirement that they register with the US Copyright Office before they can take a case to a US court. This may also entitle them to statutory damages in US courts.

Choosing a registration service

The key points to watch out for when choosing a registration service are...

  1. Will your registered work be available when it is needed?

    The point of registering is the ability to recover an professionally verifiable copy of your work as independent evidence whenever it is needed to prove your copyright claim.

    There are a number of points you need to check:

    • Who stores the work?

      A copy of your work must be stored by the registration agency, (i.e. you send them a copy of your work when you register), otherwise there is very little point.

      Avoid services that will simply send you an envelope (often described as ‘tamper proof’) to keep the work in yourself. The major flaw with such systems is that a court will only have your word that you sealed the envelope when you said you did. In my opinion, such systems are no better than the old myth of posting a copy to yourself, and have very little value.

      Always use a service that stores their own copy of your work.

    • How is your work stored?

      Always bear in mind that you may need the organisation to produce a copy of the registered work as evidence at any time in the future.

      The organisation you register with should be taking steps to minimise the risk of loss and data corruption. They should perform regular back-ups of your work, and ideally store copies of your work in multiple locations – the back ups should also be encrypted to prevent unauthorised access.

      Curiously enough, the US Copyright Office currently makes no back-up of works registered with them. When I questioned them about their storage facilities, I was told ‘The work is stored in warehouses. We do not make backup copies.’. When I raised the issue of data loss / corruption of deposits on recordable CD/DVD media, it was suggested that ‘.... a hard copy paper version is probably better to send us’. Perhaps this situation will change in the future, but in the meantime an independent service that provides multiple location / multiple format back ups looks like a good option.

    • Will the organisation be around when you need them?

      It is important to know that the organisation you choose will still be around to help you if your copyright is infringed in the future.

      Despite its failings in other areas, the US Copyright Office are backed by the US government, so it is pretty safe to assume they’ll be around for the foreseeable future.

      Most registration compnanies are privately owned, so it is unclear what will happen to your evidence if the company closed. Most of the organisations I have investigated do not explain what would happen in this situation, or if they do it is not written into the contract (we only have their word for it)*.
      *The one exception at the time of writing is the UK Copyright service who do cover this in the contractural terms (point 5.9)

  2. How capable is the organisation you are dealing with?

    Here are a few point that can be good indicators of the quality of the organisation.

    • Do they know their subject?

      These days just about anyone can create a cool looking website in a few days, but as a general rule, if the company website has lots of information, it shows they probably know their stuff, and have been around for a while.

      Avoid sites that are just a few pages and a checkout.

    • Do they accept postal application?

      The fact that the registration centre accepts postal submissions shows that they have staff to deal with applications and enquiries – it confirms that the organisation is not just an web form and a checkout. The US Copyright Office, Copyright Witness, Songrite (musical works only), Copyright Vault, Writers Guild of America (scripts only) and the UK Copyright Service all provide postal registration facilities.

      Postal applications tend to be more expensive, because a human being does the work, not a computer, but there are times when this is exactly what you need (I’d hate to have to upload 4GB of data over the Internet).

    • Quality of on-line registration facilities

      If the company offers a on-line registration facility, check much data they allow you to upload in a registration.

      As a general rule, I would avoid on-line registration services that only offer a small upload (i.e. no more than a few MB) – this is normally a sign that they are relying on a third party ISP to host their service, so they probably have little or no infrastructure of their own.

    • Quick response time

      Does the organisation respond quickly to correspondence. A good way to test this is to contact the company via their website or email address, and see how long it takes them to reply (or if you even get a reply). This is a good indication of the general level of service you will get.

      Tip: this trick works for all sorts of companies.

  3. How fast can you get cover?

    The US Copyright Office will typically take 4-6 months to confirm registration. Even though they state that the registration starts from the day they receive the work, this is still a major concern; for example, if there is a problem with your application, your work will not be registered but you will not discover this for maybe 6 months.

    Personally, I find the idea of waiting 4 months for confirmation a terrible state of affairs, most non-US registration centres that offer immediate protection via on-line services as well as a much faster turnaround on postal applications.

  4. Cost

    Some companies that allow on-line registration appear cheap, until you discover that you have to pay per file. This may not be an issue if you only want to register a single file, but otherwise the price can quickly clock up.

    If work changes and you want to update your work, most organisations, including the US Copyright Office will treat this as a new and separate registration. The one exception I have found is the UK Copyright Service who will allow you to submit ‘updates’ to a previously registered work at a reduced rate, this is a great feature as you can cover many versions of the work under the same registration number - very convenient for work that changes over time (like a website).

    You should also check what the cost of obtaining a copy of the work will be.

In conclusion

My purpose in this article was to provide you with an insight into this area, and an understanding of what a good service should provide. It is not my intention to recommend any service directly, but I hope the information in this article will help you make an informed decision.

Article by Andy Whitehead: Copyright © 2008. All rights reserved