You had an idea for an amazing book, and you did the hard work of writing it all down. You’ve edited your book. And you revised it. Then, you completed a third, fourth, and fifth edit. You have the perfect book cover. You paid someone to format your book. You’ve started marketing your launch date. You’re ready to self-publish. It’s time to celebrate, right?
Not so fast.
There’s one more thing you want to do before you crack open the champagne. You should register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office.
I’m willing to bet you spent quite a bit of time and mental energy writing, editing, designing and marketing your book. I’m also guessing that your heart might break if someone else were to copy your words and claim them as their own. The best way to protect your book is to ensure you’ve registered your copyright.
What is a copyright?
A copyright protects your original writing as well as any illustrations, photographs, or graphics you create and include in your book.* At its most basic, a copyright is exactly what it sounds like--the right to copy.
A copyright also includes a couple additional benefits, such as the right to create “derivative works,” publicly perform your work, and distribute copies of your book. If you want to read your book aloud on YouTube, sign a deal with Netflix to turn your book into a movie, or sell your book on Amazon, you want a copyright you can enforce. The only person who has a legal right to do these things or give someone else permission to do these things is the copyright owner.
While you own the copyright for your book, there are some things you cannot copyright. Copyright protection only extends to “tangible works,” which includes books, poems, blog posts, artwork, audio and visual recordings. Copyright protection doesn’t include titles, logos, processes, procedures, ideas, or inventions.
*If you hired someone to create images for you, illustrate your cover, ghost write, or edit, you’ll need to make sure your contract with those individuals clearly define who owns the copyright to their work. If it doesn’t, they own the copyright for their work and have to be included on the copyright registration for YOUR book.
When do you get a copyright?
You’re still itching to click publish and pop that champagne. So, when do you get a copyright? Well, there is some good news. One unique thing about a copyright is that it is created automatically. As soon as you write your book, you own the copyright.
But then why should I bother with the expense of registering the copyright for my book?!?
Even though you don’t need to register your copyright before you publish, the whole point of a copyright is to offer you some protection if someone else attempts to copy your work. You receive significantly more protection from a registered copyright than an unregistered one. For example, if someone else publishes your work without permission, you can only bring copyright infringement lawsuit against the unlawful copy as long as you've registered your copyright. If you only have unregistered copyright, you can still send a letter requesting that the other person or business stop using your work without permission, but you will not be able to enforce your rights in court until after you’ve submitted the registration paperwork.
So you may be saying, "What's the rush to register it before I publish and celebrate?"
The reason you shouldn't wait to register your copyright is that the two most valuable protections offered by copyright registration are only available in those who register their book within the first three months after you publish your book - eligibility to be awarded statutory damages and attorneys fees.
If your copyright was registered within three months of publication and before the infringement occurs, you can sue the person or business who stole your work for statutory damages. On the other hand, if you’ve waited until after the infringement occurs to register your copyright or after three months from when you published your book, then you will be required to prove actual damages.
Why does it matter if you sue for statutory damages or actual damages?
With statutory damages, you only need to prove that infringement occurred to receive compensation. This compensation can range from $200 to $150,000 for each original work depending on a variety of factors, such as whether or not the infringement was intentional and how difficult it would be to prove actual damages.
If you have to prove actual damages, you will need to prove how much you could have licensed the work for and how much profit the infringing party made. As you probably already know, profit is not the same thing as revenue. Even if the infringer earned $100,000 in revenue selling the book they stole from you, they may only have received a profit of $10,000, and so your actual damages would only be $10,000 as this is the amount of damage you suffered. Proving actual damages is a significantly bigger task than proving statutory damages. It will require more time and work from your attorney, which also means a bigger bill from your attorney.
Speaking of paying your attorney… if your copyright is registered before the infringement occurs and within three months of publication, you get another huge benefit: attorney’s fees. If you decide to sue the other party for copyright infringement and you win, the other party will be responsible for paying your attorney’s bill. Paying a law firm to litigate a copyright infringement suit can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. If you wait to register your copyright, you lose out on this benefit and the responsibility for paying the attorney’s bill will fall to you alone.
Make sure your contracts are in order with anyone who helped you with your book, register the copyright for your book AND then pop the champagne and celebrate all that you have accomplished with the peace of mind that your book and you are well protected!!!