How do I maintain and enforce my copyright rights?

I haven’t registered the copyright in my original work of authorship. Now what?

If you think you may want to enforce your rights one day, either by stopping others from using your work or by giving them permission to use your work, you should consider registration. Registration is inexpensive and easy, and it gives great benefits when you take steps to enforce your rights in a work (see my previous post, “How Does Copyright Protection Work?“). Otherwise, your work is protected as an unregistered copyrighted work, and you don’t have to do anything at all to maintain the protection.

I have registered the copyright in my original work of authorship. Now what?

Congratulations! You don’t have to do anything at all. Copyright registration of new works does not require any kind of maintenance.* If you want people to be able to contact you about your copyrighted work, you should make sure to keep your contact information up-to-date with the U.S. Copyright Office—but you are not required to do so.

Why would I want people to be able to contact me?

With some limited exceptions, if others want to use your copyrighted work, or even part of your copyrighted work, they have to ask your permission. Once they have asked, you can choose to give your permission or withhold it, and you can choose to charge for the use of your work. You can also limit your permission to specific contexts, from something as narrow as a single run of an advertisement on network television in Wyoming to something as broad as unlimited permission to use a work for any purpose in any medium worldwide. Ideally, you would do this with a written license so that there is no question about exactly what you have given permission to do.

What kinds of things do others have to ask my permission to do?

The owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to do or authorize certain things to be done with the copyrighted work: make copies of the work; make derivative works, which are new copyrightable works that are based on the original copyrighted work; sell, rent, lease, or otherwise make copies of the work available to the public; perform the work publicly; display the work publicly; and transmit the work as an audio transmission (for recorded works). There are several exceptions and detailed rules governing the specifics of how this works, but these are the basic rights that a copyright owner has. Anyone who does these things without the permission of the copyright owner is infringing on the copyrighted work.

What do I do if I find out someone has infringed on my copyrighted work?

If you find out that someone has infringed on your copyrighted work, you have several options for what to do next, depending on where and how the infringement has happened. If the infringement happened on a website that allows others to post content to it, you may be able to issue a DMCA take-down notice. This is a notice issued to the owner of the website in accordance with the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), indicating that the material belongs to you. The owner of the site is then required to remove the infringing content. The content may be put back up again if the infringer indicates that the content is not infringing. Depending on the Terms of Service for the website in question, you may have other remedies available to you as well, such as removing the personal or business profile of the infringer from the site.  If the infringement happened on a website that is owned by the infringer, you may be able to contact the website’s hosting provider and have the website taken down. If the infringement happened in another context altogether, or in multiple contexts, you may send a demand letter. This is a letter stating that you own the copyrighted content; that the other party is required to stop infringing on your content; and, depending on the circumstances, that the other party is required to take steps to remedy any damage caused by the infringement.

These are usually preliminary steps that you or an attorney can take in trying to stop an infringer from infringing on your work. It is not required that you take these steps, but it can save money to try these things before moving on to litigation. Sometimes, there may be a reason to choose to go straight to litigation; for example, if you have encountered a particular infringer before and know that the person or company is not likely to be receptive to a letter. If you do choose to take these preliminary steps, and none of them work to stop the infringement, you may choose to sue the infringer. If your copyright is federally registered, you may bring the suit immediately; if it is not, you must register the copyright before bringing the suit.

What if I don’t care whether others use my work in ways that infringe on it, or want to encourage others to use my work?

If you do not care whether others use your work, at any time or for any reason or in any medium, with or without attribution to you, you could commit it to the public domain by using a Creative Commons CC0 license. The public domain is the universe of works that are not protected by copyright law. They can be used by anyone in any way (unless some other IP rights apply, such as a still-active trademark). As a general rule, in the U.S., works made before 1923 are in the public domain. Other works may or may not be in the public domain depending on when they were created, where they were created, whether they were registered, and whether the registration was renewed.**

If you aren’t comfortable with committing your work to the public domain, you could consider other Creative Commons licenses. But remember, if you choose to subject a work to a Creative Commons license, you may discover that it is being used in a way you don’t approve of. You may choose to revoke the license, but you cannot do much about use that has already occurred under the license.

I’m not in the United States. What about my original work of authorship?

Copyrighted works created outside the United States are beyond the scope of this blog. However, you may be able to find information helpful to you by looking at the website of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which administers international intellectual property treaties like the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

*If you have questions about a work that was originally created and/or published before January 1, 1978, please consult with an attorney. Older works are beyond the scope of this blog post and may require registration and/or maintenance in order to be protected.

** While there is no maintenance required for copyright today, older versions of copyright law did require maintenance. Again, for works first created and/or published before January 1, 1978, please consult with an attorney.

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