When is it advisable for an author/creator to register a work with the copyright office?
I work in higher education. Students will sometimes ask for information on copyright protection for a thesis (written, not performance). Sometimes faculty will ask about protecting various devices of education such as a syllabus, exam or spreadsheet.
The Copyright Office used to promote the idea that works that are fixed do not necessarily need to be registered. When is registration a good idea? What does registration do for copyright holders?
There are some really good, separate answers to this question. I'll present them in the order I think would be useful to students and academics.
Answer #1: Clarity of ownership
Students own the academic work they author. Even if they are completing an assignment with requirements tightly prescribed by a syllabus (such as: "Write an essay about four different civil rights cases heard in 2019; no more than 2,000 words; cite no less than four peer-reviewed law journal articles commenting on each case; identify a shared theme of the cases; conclude with a short paragraph as to which case is your favorite and why."), the end result--if the student is the only writer--is the student's.
Registration is not necessary to claim a copyright any more, but it remains strong evidence as to the ownership of a work. A student who authors something of importance to that student (such as a thesis, or a student film) should consider registration so they can readily assert that ownership.
Answer #2: Publicly establishing co-authorship
Not only do students own the copyright to their academic work, but students who are co-authors own that copyright together.
This is true even if co-authors take on different tasks (such as: "Student 1 summarizes two cases, Student 2 summarizes two cases; each summary is 250 words; each cites to eight articles; they flip a coin to see whose paragraph on their favorite civil rights case is in the final version, and they proofread, edit, and finalize the document together."), the end result--if they combine their work into a single whole--is the students'.
This is also true of students collaborating with a faculty member or a faculty research partner--even if one author/researcher has more experience than the other. So, while most academic collaborations might not warrant the time and expense of registration, if the end result could be valuable (either financially, or as an academic credit in a published journal or on a CV) the co-authorship should be established in a written collaboration agreement, and confirmed with a joint registration.
Answer #3: Being able to quickly fight infringement
Before I dive into this one, a bit of commentary on copyright and academia:
The world of copyright--and of students taking credit for their artistic and academic expression--is changing: more and more authors are authorizing audiences to use their work through mechanisms such as an “open license” through the Creative Commons.
As a person who (still) believes that "information [still] wants to be free," I see this trend as a positive, but I do have one concern with this generous/generative approach: sometimes, the use of the work might be...wrong.
What do I mean by this? While an author might assume that anyone wishing to use their work would do so for a reason that aligns with that author's own perspective, values, and vision, that is simply not always the case. Sometimes, a person or organization could make a use of a work that is simply unacceptable to the author.
Authors who think they could be impacted by this type of concern should consider using a copyright notice together with an easy way for would-be users to request permission, rather than an “open license.” With this approach, an author/owner can still enable use, but will have a bit more control over what their work is associated with.
The concern over work being used in a way that is objectionable to the author (and isn’t a fair use), is one of the biggest reasons to register a copyright: if a writer/photographer/muralist/etc. really wants to stop someone from infringing their work, that work's copyright must be registered, because that is the only way an author can sue for infringement and obtain an injunction.
Answer #4: Money
My final answer is 100% financial.
As the member's question states, authors no longer have to make a registration to claim a copyright. So what is the motivation to register? In addition to answers "1" through "3," above, if a student/copyright owner, finding that their work has been infringed, wants to be able to sue for "statutory" damages, actual damages, and attorney's fees, they need to have completed the registration of a published work prior to the infringement.
Among many other things, these “statutory” damages, and the ability to recoup the costs of enforcement, are a motivation for a copyright attorney to take your infringement case without needing an up-front deposit. So, it's another tool in the toolbox of copyright enforcement.
I believe answers "1" through "4" take care of the member's last two questions. But what about the first one:
When is it advisable for an author/creator to register a work with the copyright office?
I don't usually play this card on "Ask the Lawyer," but I have to say, this is an almost unanswerable question.
For some people, the mere prestige of being able to look up their registrations at copyright.gov is important.
For others, the certainty of knowing they've done everything they can to protect their work from mis-use is critical.
And for still others--especially those planning to support themselves and their families through their intellectual property--registration is an important habit to ensure they are protecting their valuable property. After all, copyrights are property rights left to a person's heirs after they die, just like money in the bank and real estate.
When I advise a client to register a Copyright, it is because they have flagged that work as important for some reason. For some, they might have already self-published it, and want to be able to control how their work is used. For others, it is because they plan to shop it or sell it, and they want to have optimal protection before they share it. And for others, it is because they suspect that the work has that "special something," and people in the future may copy it.
Any of these, and more, are valid reasons. For students, and those working in academia, the important thing is to be aware of your full body of work, to have clarity about its ownership, and --when you know you've created and own something important to you—to protect it.
Thank you for making sure today's students are thinking about their work and their intellectual property.
 Assignments like this are why students have either loved or hated my classes, AND why I never have to rely on a utility like "Turnitin" to detect cheating. You just can't fake selecting a favorite civil rights case.
 Back when I was in law school this type of group work drove me crazy. I am a good team player professionally, but group academic work brought out the lone wolf in me.
 For example, a person who takes photos at a "Black Lives Matter" march, hoping the images will boost support for criminal justice reform, finds that their photos are being used by a political candidate who portrays the marchers as "the enemy."
 To carry forward my example, license for the photos could say "© NAME, 2020, to be used only with attribution and only after written permission. For permission, please write to ADDRESS. The author generally gives permission to those whose use will align with the author's values and agree to attribution."
 An injunction is a court order to "cease and desist" infringing use of the work.
 "Statutory damages" are those big numbers you used to see at the beginning of movies on video and DVD. And although both mediums are quickly becoming a relic of the past, damages with fixed amounts set by law are not.
 The "actual" costs and damages created by the infringement.
We’ve recently had some questions regarding the ability to provide access to dissertations, theses, and other cataloged graduate work. How does the law govern these questions?
Many college and university libraries make it a practice to bind and inventory the academic work of their graduates—a tradition that showcases the achievements of the institution, maintains an important bond between the library and the faculty (who often sign the final copy, to signify approval), and allows graduates to cite and showcase their work. These collections are often honored institutional assets: a neatly reproduced, annually increased, and routinely cataloged series of books occupying a special space in the library.
(When a graduate later becomes famous, they can also pose a persistent and annoying theft risk…but that is not the topic at hand!)
With the dawn of the digital age now at high noon, some college and university libraries are also including these home-grown works in home-grown databases. This requires a digital infrastructure that not all academic libraries can afford or support, though, so for many, the old-school binding and shelving of graduate work is still the default practice. Many institutions are now also considering whether or not to digitize their back catalog, and of course are also seeking ways to promote, provide and oversee appropriate patron access to what they have.
Overall, these “old school” copies can pose an interesting access challenge. They are generally listed in the library’s catalog, and considered a part of the active collection. But what rights does the institution have to them? How is access to them governed by copyright law, which often depends on the distinction between “published” and “unpublished?” Can they circulate, be accessed via inter-library loan, be reproduced for archival purposes, or be digitized? How much can the original author—now an alum—control them?
To answer this, I must use the phrase that is the lawyer’s most trusted companion: it depends.
We’ll take the relevant factors in order of appearance:
First, it is important to confirm: the work of a student, even if directed and overseen by a faculty member or faculty committee, is owned by that student. Student-generated work*, even if the topic was suggested by someone else, and even if the content is vigorously critiqued by someone else (and then presumably re-written), is an “original work of authorship,” and the moment it is “fixed in a tangible medium of expression,” it is owned by the author (the author). Of course, the student can sell the ownership, or donate it—but unless that transfer has been recorded in writing, it remains theirs…and then their heir’s…for the life of the author, plus 70 years.**
Second, generally, the permission to reproduce the academic work is a creature of a contract between the author (the student) and the institution (the college or university). This permission can run the range from a completely unlimited license of all the rights of copyright (to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, create derivative works), to a very limited license (to make one hard copy and add it to the catalog). This permission might be revocable, or irrevocable. It might be exclusive, or non-exclusive. It could even make use of Creative Commons licenses to create a very liberal mode of access. Critically, though…these terms can vary from institution to institution, from year to year, from student to student. There is no bright line rule.
Third, depending on the extent of the license, and other factors, the thesis or dissertation may, or may not, be “published,” as that term is defined under the Copyright Code. The ability to replicate, digitize, and create archive copies under Section 108 will be governed, in part, by publication status. Section 108 is a great asset for libraries and archives, often allowing duplication of entire articles and works…but it requires the well-documented alignment of precise factors. [NOTE: A copyright registration that included the date of publication would take care of this factor. Some institutions and authors do register these works…and if they are put in the catalog for lending, registration should be effected before circulation begins, since to do otherwise could compromise the author’s rights].
Fourth, and finally, the policies of the college or university will govern access, too. There could even be a day when an aged alum, having lost their treasured copy, may show up demand access to the library’s…only to be told that although they are without a doubt the copyright owner, they have to fill out a form, or renew their card, or wait until the Reference Librarian is back from break, so they can access their work.
That said, they are the only one who might not have to do a 108 analysis before making a copy!
*Work that is actually co-authored by a faculty member and a student is subject to the rules of co-ownership.
**As you know, copyright duration varies. A great breakdown of how to calculate duration is here: https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ15a.pdf