RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Registering works with the copyright office - 05/06/2021
When is it advisable for an author/creator to register a work with the copyright office? I work ...
Posted: Thursday, May 6, 2021 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

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?
 

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

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."[1]), 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.[2]  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."[3]), 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.[4]

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.[5]

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.[6]

 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"[7] damages, actual damages,[8] 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.

Final question

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.

 



[1] 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.

[2] The basics of registration, including the basic elements it asserts, are in "Circular 2" found at https://copyright.gov/circs/circ02.pdf.

[3] 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.

[4] 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."

[5] 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."

[6] An injunction is a court order to "cease and desist" infringing use of the work.

[7] "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.

[8] The "actual" costs and damages created by the infringement.

Tags: Academic Libraries, Copyright, Dissertations and Theses, Students, Intellectual Property, Student Works

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