Copyright Part 2: Registration

In my previous post, I summarized some of the benefits of registering copyright for your work. Those benefits are largely monetary and applicable mostly in the event you take legal action against copyright infringers.

Berne convention countries do not require copyright registration for a work to be protected, and in fact many of the countries don’t even have an established process for it. The United States is different, and since many of us write for American-based publishers, registration becomes a bigger concern. In the US system, you can sue for actual damages [the monetary loss caused by the infringement], the infringer’s additional profits on the use of your work, statutory damages [up to a limit of $150,000], and attorneys’ fees.* US-based writers must have registered copyright in order to sue. Non–US-based writers have slightly more flexibility, but would still require registration in the US to go after statutory damages and attorneys’ fees.

Publishing seems to be the wild west these days. While publishers have generally been diligent about verifying and respecting copyright, making their authors sign a contract vouching that they are the copyright holder and originator of the work, the same cannot be said for some self-published authors who don’t abide by the same professional courtesy, likely because they don’t risk losing as much. I’ve already seen a growth in reported plagiarism by authors who are either willful or ignorant violators.

Remember, if you were writing for a big publisher, they would automatically register the work for you. Clearly it’s important. For indie and self-published authors though, the decision to register is a personal one, and one that has a cost as well. As I go through my own evaluation of whether or not to register, here are some of the factors I’m considering:

How likely are you to take action and sue someone?
In my opinion, there are two aspects to this: the first is obviously financial, but the second is around reputation. Are we somehow less talented or deserving because we don’t have the luxury of a big publisher behind us? No. If you’re an indie author trying to build a long-term serious reputation, would you sue to protect it? I think I would. While you might not be inclined to take legal action on your own as a self-published author, if you’re fortunate enough to have an indie publisher who would sue on your (and their) behalf, the chances are higher that some form of litigation would occur. Remember it’s not just your lost royalties at stake, but their earnings as well.

Consider the cost of litigation:
Legal proceedings are expensive. If you plan to sue, do you have the 50K to initiate proceedings? Many lawyers won’t even touch a case unless they are guaranteed to recover fees as part of the settlement (which requires you to be registered). If you are with a publisher, they may cover the cost, but if you are self-published can you afford it? Would you actually realize any damages from the other party? It’s one thing if your action is against another publisher, but these days anyone can be their own publisher, so the question of whether you will actually be able to get any money out of the infringer is a valid one.

Do a cost/ benefit analysis:
If you are writing short books that sell for .99 cents, it might not be worth registering the work(s) because the cost to register might be a significant chunk of your potential profits. Also your actual damages/ potential lost income might not even offset the legal fees. Your infringer would have to have sold a large number of copies. In addition, if you are a prolific author, registering each work (at $50-75 each) can get costly so you might want to pick and choose which get registered.

The good news is that you can register copyright (in the US) up to five years after the initial publication. If you discover your published work has been infringed, you can still register it, provided it’s within those initial five years. But you won’t be able to claim damages for that period in which it wasn’t registered.

Hopefully some of these points have helped you make an educated decision about registering copyright in the US or in your home country. Don’t let others steal the words and worlds you’ve worked so hard to produce.

* http://www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/copyright

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