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. Wall-Street.com, 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 (https://www.copyright.gov/): 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.