Why to Register Copyright for Unpublished Works

March 7, 2013

Victoria Strauss, of the venerable Writer Beware blog, argues in a recent post that it’s not really necessary for writers to register their unpublished works with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. “It’s not until your manuscript is about to be exposed to a large audience — i.e., published — that you need to think about copyright registration,” she says.

For those who don’t know exactly what she’s talking about, copyright registration is a legal formality in which you create a public record of the details of your copyright interest in a particular work. A registration can be filed through snail mail or online.

Ms. Strauss gives the following reasons not to register an unpublished work:

  1. “you’re fully protected by copyright law from the moment you fix your work in tangible form (write down the words)”
  2. “you are not in danger of copyright infringement at the submission stage. Many authors have an unreasonable fear of theft by agents and publishers — but good agents and publishers won’t risk their reputations this way”
  3. “You may be solicited by questionable companies. Vanity publishers and dodgy literary agents have long used copyright registration lists (and magazine subscription lists) to troll for customers.”

While I have no quibbles with her factual statements, I disagree with Ms. Strauss’s conclusion. I think it’s a damn good idea to register an unpublished work, before you ever submit it. Here are my reasons:

  1. In reply to point #2, above, it’s not the “good” agents and publishers I’m worried about. I’m concerned about alleged plagiarists such as David Boyer, whom Ms. Strauss herself warned about on Writer Beware. It happens — not often, I agree, but it happens. David Morrell, in fact, is currently dealing with a situation where somebody allegedly ripped off one of his Rambo novels.
  2. Copyright is about more than just plagiarism, however. It’s about protecting oneself against unauthorized publications of your own bylined works. If you want to buy a stolen eBook copy of F. Paul Wilson’s latest Repairman Jack novel, you never have to look far, unfortunately.
  3. “But wait,” I hear you replying to my point #2, “didn’t you read Victoria Strauss’s point that you’re fully protected under copyright law without registration? Actual recordation with the federal government hasn’t been a prerequisite of copyright protection since before the 1976 Copyright Act.”

    And of course you’re right. But the inducement here is when you register. As the Copyright Office explains in its Copyright Basics circular,

    If registration is made within three months after publication of the work or prior to an infringement of the work, statutory damages and attorney’s fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Otherwise, only an award of actual damages and profits is available to the copyright owner.

    The key phrases here are statutory damages and attorney’s fees and actual damages and profits. Actual damages means how much did David Boyer make by selling your story to Great Exposure for New Writers Magazine? Did he make a whopping ten bucks? That’s your “actual” damages. Are you going to sue him, across state lines, for ten bucks? Probably not. But what if I told you that, since you filed your copyright registration before he stole it, you can sue him for statutory damages in the tens of thousands of dollars plus your attorney’s $5000 retainer?

    Sounds like a good deal to me.

Ms. Strauss says that vanity presses like Dorrance Publishing harvest the contact info of registrants for their junk mail. This is true. I’ve received quite a bit of crap from Dorrance over the years. And they’re not the only ones. As I detailed in my long article about my internship with the Edit Ink book doctor scam, the faux literary agency Aardvark also used purchased direct mail lists based on copyright registrations in order to lure beginning writers into Edit Ink’s net.

But so what? Are you gonna cry about having to throw a few extra junk mail envelopes per year into your recycle bin? Come on.

Give me a real reason, such as that filing a single copyright registration costs $35. Not chump change at all, especially if you’re a writer who’s so dollar-conscious you’re willing to walk through life without health insurance because you can’t afford the premiums. So let’s talk about that a moment.

If you go down to page 9 of the Copyright Basics circular, you’ll find a great little section titled Unpublished Collections. What it says is that you can group a whole bunch of your unpublished works together into a single “collection” and just register that. One registration, one $35 filing fee. I do this once a year. My first collection, with the awe-inspiring title, Copyright Collection — January 2009, contained the text of several unpublished short stories and a couple novels.

There are a few restrictions on filing this way, as detailed in the circular, such as that all the works in the collection must be by the same author and be “assembled in an orderly form,” which I take to mean you must number the pages and include a table of contents. And this also requires that you, the writer, keep good records should, God forbid, you ever need your lawyer to pull a copy of the collection out of the LOC’s storage. (By the way, “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” is contained in Copyright Collection — January 2009. You’re welcome to read it.) But I’m confident that any writer with 25% of a brain can handle these tasks.

Speaking of the money/time/elbow grease burdens of copyright registration, you should take note of the following “deposit requirements” — i.e., how many copies of your work you must send in — as detailed in the Copyright Basics circular:

  • if the work is unpublished, one complete copy or phono record
  • if the work was first published in the United States on or after January 1, 1978, two complete copies or phonorecords of the best edition

That second bullet point should give you pause if, like me, your latest work was published in a limited edition hardback costing $45 a pop.

However, if you send in the text of your work before it’s published — and hell, why not put it in a “Copyright Collection” with 400 other things? — then you can use the LOC’s Electronic Copyright Office filing system and send in a single PDF file. Or, if you prefer to snail mail it in the old fashion way, still just send a single copy printed from your home computer or on a disk. A warning, though, if you choose to snail mail anything to the Copyright Office. Thanks to a little problem we had with anthrax powder twelve years ago, anything you mail in will probably get irradiated as a precaution before it ever lands on a copyright examiner’s desk. Not so good for that disk you sent.

So, that’s my advice. Break that piggy bank to find $35, and send your stuff in! It’s worth it.