Unregistered Copyrights

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 What Rights Do I Have if My Copyright Is Unregistered?

Once a work has been fixed into a tangible medium of expression, it will automatically be protected by a copyright. It is not required for an individual to register their copyright in order to receive protections.

Unregistered copyrights entitle a party to reproduce, sell, and perform the copyrighted work. Beyond these rights, the owner’s rights will be limited if they have a copyright without registration, especially if they have distributed their work using a copyleft agreement.

What Is Copyright?

Copyright is a legal term that describes the rights that creators have over their artistic and literary works, including:

  • Books;
  • Music;
  • Paintings and sculptures;
  • Films;
  • Computer programs;
  • Databases;
  • Advertisements;
  • Maps; and
  • Technical drawings.

Under copyright laws, copyright holder rights include the exclusive right to use and decide how other parties can use a work during the copyright term. In other words, copyright laws grant the owner the sole rights to:

  • Reproduce the work: The owner is permitted to make copies in various forms, for example, printed publications or sound recordings;
  • Distribute copies of the work: The owner can sell, lease, or lend copies of their works to the public;
  • Perform the work publicly: Displaying the work publicly may refer to things such as displaying the painting in a gallery or staging a play;
  • Make derivative works: The owner can adapt the work into a new form, such as turning a novel into a screenplay for a film; and
  • Display the work publicly: Displaying the work publicly refers to visual works, such as:
    • Paintings;
    • Photographs;
    • Sculptures; or
    • Films.

It is important to note that a copyright does not protect:

  • Ideas;
  • Concepts;
  • Systems; or
  • Methods of doing something.

Copyrights only protect things that are expressed in a tangible medium. Copyright laws vary by country, but many countries recognize the copyright laws of other countries based on international agreements. This means that a work that was copyrighted in one country may be protected in other countries as well. The duration of a copyright may also vary depending on:

  • The type of work;
  • The publication status of the work;
  • The date of the creator’s death.

In general, a copyright will last for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years.

What Is Copyright Protection?

Copyright protections provide creators of original works with exclusive rights. These protections are intended to encourage the creation of both culture and art by rewarding artists and authors with exclusive rights.

Examples of the types of protections copyright offers include:

  • Exclusive rights: Copyright grants the owner exclusive rights to:
    • Reproduce the copyrighted work;
    • Prepare derivative works based upon the work;
    • Distribute copies of the original work to the public;
    • Perform the work publicly; and
    • Display the work publicly;
  • Prevent unauthorized use: Copyright protections also serve to prevent other parties from using the work without permission. This can include anything from:
    • Making copies;
    • Distributing;
    • Performing;
    • Displaying; or
    • Making derivative works;
  • Economic rights: These rights allow a copyright owner to profit from their work. The owner has the exclusive right to sell, rent, lease, or lend copies of the copyrighted work to others;
  • Moral rights: Moral rights include the right of attribution, or the right to claim authorship of the work and to prevent the use of one’s name on distorted versions of the work, and the right of integrity, or the right to prevent alteration, destruction, or distortion of the work that would harm the author’s honor or reputation; and
  • Duration of protection: Generally, for works that were created after January 1, 1978, copyright protections last for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years;
    • A copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first for:
      • Anonymous works;
      • Pseudonymous works;
      • Works made for hire.

Although copyright protections are automatically provided upon creation of a work, there are additional benefits to registering a copyright with the United States Copyright Office. These include the ability to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement and potentially receive statutory damages as well as attorney’s fees.

Should I Register a Copyright?

As noted above, it is not mandatory to register a copyright because certain protections are automatically provided when the original work is created. There are several advantages to registering, including:

  • Evidence of ownership: Registering a copyright establishes a public record of the copyright claim, which can be used as evidence in a court of law to show that the owner is the rightful owner of the work;
  • Prerequisite for filing an infringement suit: In the United States, a copyright owner must register their copyright before they can file a lawsuit for copyright infringement;
  • Statutory damages and attorney’s fees: An owner may register their copyright prior to any infringement or within three months of the work’s publication. In this case, they may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in a successful litigation rather than having to prove actual damages; and
  • Deterrent: The mere act of registration may serve as a deterrent to potential infringers, making it clear that the copyright owner is serious about protecting their rights.

Unregistered copyrights still offer protections, and an owner can still take action against infringement. However, the owner would be limited to actual damages, which may be more difficult to prove.

In addition, without registration, it may be harder for an individual to prove their ownership in court.

What Is Copyright Infringement?

Copyright infringement occurs when a work that is protected by copyright law is used without permission, which infringes on the exclusive rights that are granted to the copyright holder. The legal punishment for infringement may vary depending on the circumstances of the case.

For example, in the United States, the statutory damages for copyright infringement may range from $750 to $30,000 per work. It is important to note, however, that the amount of damages may be as high as $150,000 per work for willful infringement.

It may also be possible for a court to order an offender to pay the attorney’s fees of the holder of the copyright. In more serious cases of copyright infringement, criminal charges may be brought, resulting in criminal fines and imprisonment.

These are the laws in the United States. The laws and penalties may vary in other jurisdictions.

An individual may have legal issues involving copyrights, such as protections, registration, or infringement. If so, it is important to consult with an attorney to obtain advice that is tailored to their specific situation.

Can I Sue for Copyright Infringement Without Registration?

No, an individual cannot bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement without first registering their copyright. It may be possible to sue for an injunction that would order the individual using the copyrighted work to stop using it.

Possible Damages

It may be possible for an individual to obtain actual damages and profits in a lawsuit that involves an unregistered copyright. Actual damages and profits are the actual funds that were lost, or potentially lost, by the owner of the copyright and the funds that were gained by the individual who used the work.

If a copyright is registered, it may be possible to receive statutory damages, or damages that are called for by statute, in addition to attorney’s fees.

Should I Register My Copyright?

Due to the limited rights that an owner has with an unregistered copyright and the many benefits that an owner gets for registering their copyright, it is important to consider registering the copyright. An attorney can provide more information about the many benefits of registration.

Do I Need a Lawyer for My Copyright Problem?

If you have any issues, questions, or concerns related to a copyright issue or registering a copyright, you should consult with a copyright lawyer. Defending your copyright can be difficult, whether it is registered or not.

Your attorney can guide you through the process of registering your copyright and ensuring that all of the requirements and deadlines for copyright protection are met. If you are sued for copyright infringement or if you need to file a copyright infringement lawsuit, your lawyer can represent you in court.

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