Why you should register your work at the US Copyright Office (USCO)

Feature photo: Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Registering your work at the US Copyright Office (USCO) brings a number of crucial benefits, and is open to creators living and working both within and outside the United States. We’ve put together a comprehensive guide that explains exactly why you should register your work with the USCO—and how to do it.

What is the US Copyright Office?

The US Copyright Office is an official United States government body that holds records of copyright registrations, and is home to the most complete and accurate collection of copyright ownership records in the world.

The stated mission of the Copyright Office is to promote creativity, by helping to protect the rights of creators against their works being used without their consent, for profit or otherwise. The office is also significant in that it contains a detailed record of cultural heritage, both from the US and beyond, since its founding in 1870.

Why should I register my work at the US Copyright Office?

It’s important to note that US law considers your work protected from the moment of creation, even if you do not register it at the USCO.

Registration, however, adds a powerful layer of protection, especially if you find yourself in a legal dispute. If you register your work within five years of creation, it will then be considered “prima facie evidence” in a court of law. Prima facie evidence is used to establish a fact (for example, the fact that you own the copyright of the registered work), and while it can be rebutted with contradictory evidence, it does provide a much stronger starting point for you as a creator.

Plus, if you register your work either prior to it being infringed or up to three months after publication, in the event of a successful claim, you will be eligible to receive statutory damages and—at the court’s discretion—reimbursement of legal fees.

As a bonus, USCO records can be used to publicly identify the creators and copyright owners of registered work, so you can also include contact details in case someone would like to license your images. 

How do I know if I’m eligible to register my work at the US Copyright Office?

US copyright law protects “original works of authorship that are fixed” and “in a tangible form of expression”. The USCO defines an original work of authorship as one that is “independently created by a human author and possesses at least some minimal degree of creativity.”

A USCO circular lists a number of examples of copyrightable works, including “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works,” as well as “motion pictures and other audiovisual works.” Photography falls clearly within the limits of this definition.

There are several exceptions, and they are related to the concept of “work for hire.” So, if you created work as an employee of a company, then your employer retains the copyright. Similarly, if a work is commissioned by a third party and you provided it in the capacity of contractor (as opposed to employee), and you signed a “work for hire” agreement declaring it as such, then you do not own the copyright to that work.

Joint authorship is also recognised by US copyright law, so if you collaborated on a work, you can register as a co-owner. For collective works (such as a book where one or more of your photos are featured alongside others), you remain the owner of your individual contributions, unless copyright is expressly assigned otherwise.

Should I register my works with the USCO even though I live and work outside the US?

The United States is part of a robust set of international treaties that affect copyright, and has agreements with many countries. This means that even if you do not live or work in the US, and/or did not create or publish your work there, it is still worth registering at the USCO. For example, if you register a non-US work within the requisite five years from publication, it is more likely that, in the case of a legal dispute, that registration can be taken as prima facie evidence of your ownership of the work

How do I register my work at the US Copyright Office?

You can register online. A single application (one work by a sole author) costs USD35.

As a photographer, it generally makes sense for you to register your work in bulk, rather than one image at a time. The good news is that in early 2018, the process for bulk registration of photographs was significantly overhauled, making it simpler than ever for you to register your works. The system now allows you to upload 750 files in one go (a group). Each group can be a maximum of 500 MB, and it’s possible to compress your files. The cost is USD 55 per group, and you can pay by credit or debit card.

There are two separate options for registering by group: one is for unpublished works, the other for published (you can’t register both types in one group). Importantly, even though you submit your images in bulk, each image in the group is registered individually, so you can still make a claim on any single work.

Once you’re ready to submit your application, come up with a title for each image and prepare an Excel sheet or pdf with a numbered listing of the title and filename of each image in the group. If the images have been published, also include the first publication date in your list.

Here’s some examples – for published works:

SEQUENCE NUMBER_TITLE_FILENAME_PUBLICATION DATE

  1. Rainbow_IMG_1234.jpg_11/05/18
  2. Skyscraper_IMG_5678.jpg_12/05/18
  3. Portrait_IMG_9101.jpg_12/05/18

And for unpublished works it’s even more straightforward:

SEQUENCE NUMBER_TITLE_FILENAME

  1. Rainbow_IMG_1234.jpg
  2. Skyscraper_IMG_5678.jpg
  3. Portrait_IMG_9101.jpg

Note that the name of this document (your list) needs to be quite particular: the group name (whatever you’ve decided to call it) followed by the case number assigned to your application by the electronic registration system. This means that you need to create your application first, get a case number, and then you can submit all your files and documents.

Previews of each registration form (published and unpublished photos) and title list templates can be found here.

Spend time on your registration. The USCO doesn’t verify the information you submit, so it’s your responsibility to make sure there are no mistakes. In the event of litigation, if the opposing side

finds any discrepancies with your registration, it could invalidate your whole claim.

If your work has been published anywhere other than online, you also need to deposit a hard copy of that work to the USCO. If your work was first published in the United States, you should submit the “best edition”, defined as the highest quality edition currently in public circulation. For works published outside the US, you can submit either the first published work or the “best edition”.

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tl;dr  

  • The USCO is an official government body that holds records of copyright registrations.
  • Your work is automatically copyright protected at the point of creation, but there are a number of major benefits to registering with the USCO.
    • It establishes the fact of your ownership (primae facie evidence) in the case of litigation.
    • If you register in time, you may also be entitled to statutory damages and legal fees.
  • You can and should register even if you do not live and work in the USA.
  • You can register your work at any time, but to get full benefit it’s best to do so as soon as possible.
  • You can register your images in bulk online at a cost of USD 55 per 750 images (max. 500 MB)
  • Make sure your registration is accurate; mistakes can invalidate a claim.

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