The author of an original work has copyrights over it as soon the work is fixed in some tangible expression. Federally registering a copyright has advantages, but it isn’t required for copyright to exist.

As soon as you author a work, you can use it. No registration is required.

Unlike patents and trademarks, copyrights don’t undergo a thorough examination process. In many cases, you simply file the forms, pay the filing fee and receive the copyright after 8-10 months. Special attention must be paid to how the forms are filled out, making sure to complete all the steps in the proper way.

You can use pseudonyms, or stage names, when filing for registration. There is a box labeled “Pseudonymous” to check on the forms, when giving information about the authors.

This provision requires two complete copies of the “best edition” of copyrightable work published in the U.S. be sent to the Copyright Office for the collections of the Library of Congress within three months of publication. For more information see Circular 7D, and Circular 7B.

Publication in copyright law is the distribution of copies of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership. Offering to distribute is also considered publication.

Whether a work is published has important implications. The year of publication may determine the length of the copyright term, the date and nation of first publication may determine if a non-US work is eligible for copyright protection in the US, a certificate of registration creates certain legal presumptions if the work is registered within 5 years of first publication, a copyright owner may be entitled to claim statutory damages and attorney’s fees in an infringement lawsuit if the work was registered before the infringement began or within three months after the first publication, and other reasons. For further information regarding publication, read Chapter 1900 of the Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices.

The adage “timing is everything” applies to copyright registration, and the answer to this question could depend on the type of work(s) you wish to register, how many works you wish to register, and whether your works have already been published.

First, the statute of limitations for copyright infringement under the Copyright Act is three years.  In order to bring a claim for infringement, you will need to have filed for registration and obtained a final determination from the Copyright Office concerning your application.  See Fourth Estate.  This process currently averages seven to nine months.

Second, statutory damages for copyright infringement are typically available for copyright holders who registered their copyright prior to when their work was infringed.  This kind of infringement is categorized as “post-registration” infringement.

Third, you may be able obtain statutory damages for infringement that occurred after publication and prior to obtaining registration, if you registered your work(s) within three months of first publishing your work.

Fourth, you may also seek registration prior to publishing your work(s).  Publication is a specifically defined term within the context of copyright, and identifying your publication date is essential to determining your rights.

In addition, the Copyright Office provides special procedures for registering groups of unpublished works, which allow copyright claimants to register multiple works in a single application, thus requiring only one filing fee to register multiple independent works (typically up to ten works in one application).  To use these procedures, you must register your works before publication.

Other groupings of certain types of works are eligible for registration, so long as they were first published in a certain format.  For instance, a unit of publication is a type of copyright registration that allows a claimant to register multiple works that are physically bundled or packaged together and first published as an integrated unit, e.g., a board game.

The above do not encompass all of the issues to consider when determining your copyright registration strategy but highlight a number of factors that relate to timing.  For these reasons, it is important to consult experienced copyright counsel to help you develop and implement the appropriate copyright registration filing strategy for your works of creative authorship.

The general rule is that a claimant must file a single, separate application for registration of their copyright in each individual work.  Government filing fees for copyright applications are relatively less expensive than other forms of intellectual property protection and therefore a very attractive way to protect your original works of authorship.

For example, if filed electronically, the basic filing fee for registration of a single work created by a single author, who is also the claimant, and where the work was not a work made for hire, the government filing fee is $45.

If you are a photographer who has taken hundreds of photos, or a musician who has recorded several songs, you may be able to register multiple works in a single application, paying only one application fee for several or numerous independently copyrightable works.  For example, the filing fee for registration of a claim in a group of published or unpublished photographs (up to 750 photographs meeting certain requirements) is $55.

There are many ways to file an application for registration of your copyright, and there are many other services that can be accomplished through the Copyright Office.

The Copyright Office identifies its current fee schedule on its website here.  Note, the fees identified by the Copyright Office are the government fees only and do not include the cost of working with an attorney to strategize your IP portfolio or actually prepare and file your application.  Despite this, preparation of an application for registration of a copyright can typically be accomplished in a shorter time frame than patent and trademark applications, and Fish IP™ often works with copyright clients to provide services on a fixed fee basis.

Currently the average examination time from the date of filing your application to a final determination from the Copyright Office is between seven to nine months, highlighted by the U.S. Supreme Court in a March 2019 precedential decision concerning the registration requirement under 17 U.S.C. § 411. 

There are certain narrow circumstances where your application may be expedited through filing a Request for Special Handling.  If your Request for Special Handling is granted, the Copyright Office makes every effort to examine the application within five business days.