Monday, September 16, 2013

To Register Copyright or Not To Register Copyright?

Aspects of Independent Publishing: Part One - Copyrights

To Register My Copyright, or Not To Register My Copyright?

That truly is the question for indie writers going it alone in the world of self-publishing. And, like all United States government websites, the Copyright website looks intimidating and user-unfriendly. When one has to dig to find the correct answers to the questions one thinks one is asking, one tends to want to throw in the towel, shut one’s eyes against the world, and scream “I DON’T CARE ANYMORE” off a mountaintop.

I am not qualified to discuss the legal side of registering copyright. I am not a lawyer, copyright or otherwise. That being said, I would like to share what I've faced on my journey to being published independently. There's a ton of information out there, most of it will probably be more useful to you than this series, but hey. The topics I'm covering are the ones that made me go hmm...

First off, let me state that if you write something, you own the copyright on it. The Copyright Office does not give you this right. Your brain-child has immediate protection under copyright law. Nothing needs to be done. No magic beans need to be purchased. No envelopes mailed through the post office. Nothing. In theory, you can spare yourself the $35 and do what you want with your written work without any further process.

Sooo...What does the Copyright Office do then, exactly,
 if not give you the copyright for your work?

The Copyright Office allows you to REGISTER your already existing copyright. This means you are announcing to the United States that you wrote Insert Your Title Here. This announcement and your work and all your subsequent rights are now a matter of Public Record.

Shel, why would I want my copyright to be a matter of public record?

There are lots of reasons. One is solely for bragging rights. I mean, come on. It’s cool to be on the registry alongside Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. (Look them up; they're both there!) And since a copy of your work is taken at time of submission, you have a copy of your work in The Library of Congress. Cool right? 

Another reason, and perhaps the most important, is to make it easier for the law to work in your favor. I don’t know about you, but $35 seems a small amount to pay to have the weight of public record and the government at your back. So if someone ever did try to claim your work as theirs and make a little money off of it, you can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that not only are they breaking the law, but you care enough about your work to bring them to heel.

You also need to give careful consideration to what happens to your copyright in the 70 years after your death. Again, here I would urge you to consider obtaining professional legal advice from the appropriate authority for specific answers. But I should think a registered copyright at the beginning would help make the transition from Author’s Rights to Author’s Estate’s Rights a little easier to navigate for your posterity. Since most people cannot predict the hour of their death, I encourage you to set aside time as soon as you are able and commit yourself to the future survival of your work.

So let’s say I've decided to register my copyright.
Now what?

Like most businesses these days, the Copyright Office has a mostly streamlined online process. And it’s the most cost effective method and so it’s the route I went with my copyright application.  The advantages to filing online, beyond the convenience of being able to stay in your pajamas, are lower fees (the $35 I previously mentioned), the fastest turnaround times for your Certificate of Registration (which is still painfully slow at 3-5 months when one is impatiently waiting), and you can actually track your place in the 3-5 month wait.

I will warn you. The Copyright Office might have a mostly streamlined online process, but it's still a government entity. The application is redundant in areas and incredibly specific in others. Be ready to look at the screen and say “what the f-“.  Even getting to the actual online site to file is kind of a pain. Remember the government is designed to put red tape wherever possible to inconvenience you in the name of making things more convenient.

The Copyright Office does have walk-through guides available in varied formats. Brush up on your government-ese and read through it. They do contain answers for all your questions, just not where you think they should be.

Once you get to, follow all the links that say eCO Online. There are a couple, just keep going. On your first visit you will be prompted to set up an online account. I set up an account two months before I was ready to register my copyright. I wanted to poke my nose about on the site and get familiar with it before it was time for me to break out my credit card and fill out the application. I’m glad I did, because it made the actual application process a little easier to navigate.

And yes, there are security settings within the application. So if you want a certain email to be listed as contact with regard to rights options, but a different one established specifically for the Copyright Office to contact you if something about your application is amiss, you can do that. If you write under a pseudonym, there is a place for that, too, so your real name is linked to your author name. Look up Robert Gilbraith. Then wonder, like me, how no one saw A Cuckoo's Calling coming...I guess that's a topic for another discussion.

I cannot speak for all, but if you decide to go through an independent publisher platform, I'm sure some at least can set up your registration for you. Bear in mind, either way you go, you will need to have the most finished, best edited version of your work ready to submit. You won’t need to provide the hard copy if all you’ve got is the ebook format. Any minor changes, like corrections to grammar and spelling, to your work after copyright are still covered without the need to reregister the work. Any plot change, or major change like an extra chapter or character, or a combo package, will need to have a new copyright registered.

If you have other questions of a non-legal nature about publishing independently, or if you would like a cheer squad to help you walk through the process, feel free to ask me. I’m willing to help where I can. If it takes a village to raise a child, why not a community to publish a book?

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