While copyright law offers some guard against theft or misuse by others, to benefit from full protection under the law, you need to register your online work with the U.S. Copright Office (USCO).
In the United States, copyright is granted to a work once it is fixed into a tangible medium of expression—meaning your web content is protected as soon as it is saved on your computer or on your server. However, enforcing your rights can be difficult without registering your copyright. Consider the following benefits:
- Ability to Sue: Without first registering your copyright, you cannot sue for copyright infringement. You can take other enforcement actions, such as takedown notices, but you cannot file an actual lawsuit. (This does not apply to copyright holders outside the U.S.)
- Statutory Damages and Legal Costs: Timely registration (either within three months of publication or before the infringement takes place) enables you to collect statutory damages up to $150,000 per infringement and legal costs. Without timely registration, you are limited to actual damages, which is the greatest of what the infringer made or the victim lost.
- Proof of Ownership and Public Record: In addition to establishing a public record of your copyright, if registration is made within five years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence that the work is yours, and makes it difficult for an infringer to dispute your ownership.
- Blocking of Importation: Finally, though less relevant to those working online, a copyright registration allows you to have U.S. Customs block importation of infringing material.
For more information on the benefits and process of registration, see the USCO’s Circulars.
Step 1: Preparing Your Content
The first step to registering a copyright is preparing your work to be submitted. To do that, you need to get all the content you created (leave out comments or images from third parties) and put it into a format that the USCO accepts. Formats are separated by medium—so for example, if you are registering articles, look under “text.” If you post videos or photography, there are categories for those as well.
Most blogging platforms, including WordPress and Blogger, offer ways to export your blog’s content and download it to your computer. Some tools export to an XML format, which the USCO does not accept; however, the simplest solution is to change the extension of the file to .txt (the coding from your website will be visible but so will your content and the USCO will accept it.) You can also try a converter (search online for “XML-to-TXT converters.”)
Alternatively, you can use plugins such as Export to Text to export your site’s content directly to a .txt file.
If you are only registering text (words, a.k.a. “copy”), move on to the next step. If you also have original photography, charts, videos or presentations on your website, gather those elements as well (use the USCO list for formats) and put everything into a folder. Zip the folder (process depends on your computer platform or software: PC or Mac) and move on to next step.
Step 2: Registering with the USCO
Although you can register your work through a hard copy application, filing copyrights electronically through the USCO’s Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) is the fastest and cheapest way to register your work.
You’ll first need to create an account and, once you’re signed in, click “Register a New Claim” in the left sidebar. There, you’ll be greeted with the three major steps of registering a claim: Completing the application, making your payment and submitting your work.
Click the “Start Registration” button and input the following information:
- Type of Work: From the dropdown box, select the type of work your site is. Most sites are literary works, meaning they are primarily text-based, but that may differ if you work mostly in another medium. Click the links for explanations of the different types you can choose from.
- Title: Click the “New” button, add a new “Title of Work Being Registered” and name it the same as your blog. To simplify registration, register your blog as one literary work (no need to add subtitles for new posts).
- Publication/Composition: Unfortunately, the USCO does not clearly address whether a work published on the web is considered “published” or not. However, most experts including the American Society for Media Photographers believe a public site should be treated as “published” and a private one as “unpublished.” The date of publication and creation would be when the last post was created, meaning when the work was complete in its current form, and the nation of publication is your country.
- Authors and Claimants: If you created all the content on your site, you will be both the author and the claimant. You can use the “Add Me” buttons to import your information. If other authors were involved (e.g. your site includes articles by multiple writers), you will need to add them as authors.
- Limitation of Claim: If this is your first registration, there should be no limitations on your claim. Scroll down to “A Quarterly Commitment” if it is not your first claim.
- Rights and Permissions: This section is optional if you want to name a contact for anyone wanting to seek permission to use your work.
- Correspondent: This is the person the USCO will contact if there are questions or issues with your copyright registration. Make sure this information is accurate and up to date. You can use the “Add Me” button here as well.
- Mail Certificate: This is the address to which your certificate will be mailed. Check this information carefully.
- Special Handling: You should not require special handling (which is very expensive) except in extreme circumstances.
- Certification and Review: You will be asked to certify that the information you provided is true to the best of your knowledge and review it before submission.
Step 3: Paying the Fee
After you’ve submitted your claim, you will be forwarded to the checkout phase to pay for the registration. The current fees (July 19, 2012) for registration are $35, although this is subject to change and you can check the USCO’s fee page for the latest rates.
Step 4: Submitting the Files
You’ll now be redirected to a page to upload your deposit—the file you created earlier. The USCO limits the file size that can be uploaded so, depending on how large or extensive your content is, you may need to break large uploads into multiple zip files. (Alternatively, you can mail the files on a CD using a special label you can print from the USCO site.)
Once you’ve submitted the file, you’re done! Check the USCO’s processing times to see how long it should take to get your registration certificate (usually a few months).
Step 5: Keeping Up Your Registration—a quarterly commitment
For bloggers, writers or website owners whose content changes regularly, be sure to repeat this process every three months for new content. The only difference is when you reach “Limitations of Claim,” indicate the registration number and year of your most recent registration.