The process for obtaining a copyright is much simpler now than it was in the past, when certain formalities had to be followed. A person obtains a copyright in their work when it expresses sufficient originality and is “fixed” in a tangible medium. You do not need to register your work with the Copyright Office, publish it, or put a copyright notice on it to get copyright protection. While you can easily get the rights associated with copyright, the protection your work receives without registration is minimal. Registering copyrighted works with the Copyright Office provides several important benefits.
One benefit is a presumption of the validity of your copyright. If you ever needed to prove that you own a copyright and do not have that work registered, you would have to show evidence that the work is copyrightable and that you created (or otherwise obtained the copyright to) the work. However, if you register your work before or within 5 years of the date of publication, you would generally not have to prove you owned the copyright nor the truth of the statements you include in the registration application.
Registration also allows you to sue for infringement. This may come as a surprise to some, but unless your work is registered, you cannot sue someone for infringing on your copyright.
Additionally, you must register your work to qualify for attorney’s fees and statutory damages (typically sought when the actual amount of monetary damage is difficult to prove). The crux here is that you must register the work before it is infringed upon, not merely before you file suit, to qualify. This can be a particularly useful benefit because litigation is often very expensive.
Lastly, for works created from 1 January 1978 to 1 March 1989, registration can preclude some defenses that an innocent infringer may assert if the notice of copyright was defective.
There is a myth of a “poor man’s registration” where one mails their work to themselves in a sealed package. The goal of the poor man’s registration is to establish the date a work is created by the date on the postage. While this may aid in establishing the date a work was created, it does not establish who created the work nor does it provide any of the benefits of registration outlined above and thus constitutes a waste of time.
Timely, proper registration is an important shield for your works and allows you to protect the rights you obtained by creating the work. Registration is effective on the date the Copyright Office receives an acceptable application, deposit of the work, and the registration fee.