This post, by Literary Lawyer Kelly Way, originally appeared on the Writer’s Fun Zone site on 2/8/13.
Welcome back to our regular column on literary law. Today we focus on whether of not to register your copyright from our monthly guest columnist, Kelley Way, a lawyer specializing in literary law. If you have general questions for Kelley on copyright or other aspects of literary law, be sure to comment [on the original post]. Thanks!
And now for a bit of necessary legalese: Please note that this article does not constitute legal advice, and that an attorney-client relationship is not formed by reading the article or by commenting thereon.
To register or not to register…
Copyrights and trademarks are very different. One protects your work, while the other protects your reputation. A sentence is almost impossible to copyright, but it can easily be trademarked. On the other hand, they have a lot in common. Both exist to allow you to profit from something you worked to create. Both can be obtained without having to file a form with the government. And both really deserve to have that form mailed in.
But why? I just said you can get a copyright or trademark without it. And do we really want the government to be a big know-it-all? Yes, we do, and here’s why.
First of all, the Copyright Office and the Patent and Trademark Office can be very useful tools for writers. You can check to see if a work is still under copyright before you quote it in your book (this is more useful for pre-1978 books, but I covered that in an earlier article; just assume that any work created after 1978 is copyrighted). You can also check to see if the title of your book is trademarked before you put it on the market. This will save you a lot of time, stress and money if you should end up on the receiving end of an infringement lawsuit. In order for this system to be effective, though, these offices need authors to register their works with them; they’re not going to reach out and find you.
And second, if your copyright or trademark is registered with the appropriate office, then if you should be in a position to sue someone else, not only do you have a more solid case, but you will also be entitled to statutory damages if you win. Let me elaborate.