The Supremes weigh in on copyright

Oy. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about already, the Supreme Court just ruled on a change in the way copyright law will be enforced. Writers, pay attention!

For years, it was common practice in the writing community to hold off filling out the forms and paying the fees to register copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office. One could start the paperwork if they suspected an attempt had been made to steal their intellectual property, after which they could go ahead and file suit against the infringer. Now, however, thanks to a unanimous ruling by the United State Supreme Court, that’s no longer an option.

Ruling in the case of Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v., LLC, the Court specified that actual approval of a copyright application by the United States Copyright Office is required before a suit can be filed.

Keep in mind it takes a good long while for the government to grind through the process and issue a certificate. For filings done online, the wait time is 2-10 months. If done through the mail it’s currently 1-26 months. An expedited process is available, but it costs considerably more. Because of this most recent ruling, I suspect the system will be flooded with new registrations, so the delays will only grow longer. I also suspect the folks who plunder the intellectual work of others will be delighted by this.

Why is all this important? For starters, copyright law allows for “statutory damages” as high as $150,000, per work and attorney fees can be charged to the defendants. But these options only apply when an owner applies for registration A) within 90 days of first publication, or B) before the infringement begins. Neither is available if the registration process begins after the infringement.

In the past, writers would often send a copy of a manuscript by certified mail to themselves. The unopened envelope could be file away somewhere safe. The postmark on the envelope would effectively prove that a specific work existed at a specific time and could be used as evidence in a lawsuit. According to the government website ( The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

The good news is that as of Feb. 13, 2019, writers may submit up to 10 works at a time for copyright registration. I will be doing this as soon as I finish working on this year’s federal tax return. I would offer a parting thought on this annual event which I anticipate with all the exuberance one normally reserves for a colonoscopy, but I’ll spare you that in light of all this other insight. <sigh>

Bear with me a little longer; I’ll report on my efforts–and the associated costs–of filing multiple copyright applications when next we meet. Oh boy, ten at a time. I can hardly wait.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Memoir, novel writing, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Supremes weigh in on copyright

  1. Robert Daniel Mumford says:

    Wow, not good. Do keep us posted. Thanks

  2. joshlangston says:

    Will do. I’m very interested in finding out all I can, and I’ll be happy to share whatever I learn.

  3. dorisreidy says:

    And yet, I keep bestowing my immortal prose upon the population despite the blows raining about my head. I’ll be watching your foray into copyright land – thanks for sharing the info.

  4. polinto says:

    Good luck. Your saga should be interesting.

  5. caverhubert says:

    Thank you Josh, I have been forwarding your posts to a writer relative and she shares them with her writing group. You have inspired me to start a blog post each week on writing.
    I attached the following to the e-mail and unless you have any objections I will try to keep it up.
    Feel free to use anything I post. Keep up the good work.
    I have my weekly writing tip:
    Feel free to share or pass this e-mail along to anyone you like. I also will be going back and ordering copyright for all my books. I have done this on my first books, then stopped. They do require a electronic copy of the book if I remember correctly. I can pass along more details if you like. Happy writing, Hubert

    • joshlangston says:

      Good fortune, my friend. The weekly demand for fresh, new material can be a little tiresome. I’ve been doing this now for five years or so. There have been times when fresh and new were the farthest things from my mind. Please tell your writin’ relation she can follow the blog all on her own. I need all the friends I can get!

  6. Hubert Crowell says:

    I have now applied for a copyright on six books that I had not previously protected. Each cost $55.00 up from $35.00 only a few years ago. The process can be a little confusing; however, if you save your first application as a template, then you have to make changes for the next one. One question, should we print the certificate number in the book? I will look this up.

    • joshlangston says:

      Thanks, Hubert. I’ll be doing the same this week. I got the impression the price hadn’t gone up for registrations done online. If this hadn’t been the result of a Supreme Court ruling, I’d have guessed the Feds had found a way to tap into a million previously sheltered billfolds.

    • caverhubert says:

      I made the Copyright notice on one of my e-books a link to display the copyright certificate. It works well when I view the epub. thinking about displaying the registration number on the same line or just below the Copyright notice.

  7. Hubert Crowell says:

    I did not see an option for saving money by submitting more than one book at a time. Hope I didn’t miss saving $.

  8. Gail McKoy says:

    It seems like The Supremes are not being too encouraging to first-time writers just entering the world of copyright. I wonder how many creative people will just give up when faced with the initial costs and time lags for getting their works protected.

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