In last week’s column, I talked about one of the most important decisions every copyright holder has to make, whether or not to register the copyright in their works.
The conclusion of the article was that there is no single correct answer but every creator should be aware of the benefits of registration and make a decision for themselves.
However, if you do decide to register your site, you are immediately faced with an ugly problem. The copyright registration system, despite some recent modernizations, is still geared almost solely toward the types of content that existed in the 80s and 90s. It is a very poor fit for the Internet age and digital-only authors are going to struggle to protect their work.
So how do you register your website? Sadly, the problem may seem intimidating but, if you are willing to put in some time and effort, the process really isn’t that complicated.
Preparing to Register
Before you begin the process of registering your site, you’re going to need to take a few preliminary steps before you can hop on and start filling out forms.
First, you will need to get together your personal information. In particular, you’ll need to find an address that you know you’ll be receiving mail at for about a year down the road, the reason is that, while your registration is effective the day it is sent, you likely won’t get your certificate for many months. This may require some advance planning if you travel a great deal or are planning a move.
However, the main thing you’ll need to prepare is a copy of your site for upload. You can do this several different ways. First, you can export all of the content to a single word processing file or you can spider your entire site and upload it as a series of HTML files in a single zip file.
Generally, which solution you use depends more on whether you are trying to register just the text of your site or whether you also have copyright in the visual works. If you are in the former category, a data export works better for getting just the text. However, if you’re in the latter category, you’ll need to download the whole site to get the images and be careful to exclude images you don’t hold the rights to.
If you choose the first route, WordPress (as well as most other blogging platforms) has a simple export function that will get your content in a more friendly format. However, you will have to convert it to one of the supported file types for the Copyright Office to take it. If you choose to download your entire site, you’ll likely want the aid of a spider to help you download it automatically, HTTrack may be a good place to start as it is both free and something I used repeatedly for this purpose.
Once you have your site in on your computer and in a format that is accepted by the USCO, you should be ready to start filling out your forms.
Using the eCOSystem
The USCO has, for the past few years, worked to move more and more copyright filers to using their Electronic Copyright Office System (or eCOSystem if you enjoy bad government puns). The system allows you to handle the entire registration process online without touching a paper form or mailing in hard copies.
Most of the questions the eCOSystem asks are self-explanatory and the USCO has an excellent tutorial on how to go through the motions (on the link above).
The hardest question you’ll likely be asked is, most likely, if the work is published or unpublished. Though it is tempting to think of all works online as being published, the law is much less clear, defining publication, for this purpose, as, “The distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.”
For the most part, posting a work online counts as a public display or performance, something that does not qualify as publication. This means that, even though your work may have been viewed by millions of people online it may not be considered published under the law, a classic example of how the copyright code has not caught up with the digital age.
However, the USCO leaves the determination up to the applicant. If you feel it meets the qualifications, go ahead and say that it’s published and give the date in which the last of the works you are applying for appeared on the site (meaning probably sometime very recent).
Once you’ve answered all of the questions (you will likely want to lean on the USCO’s provided help the first few times) you should be ready to pay for your registration, which will cost $35 and is payable via credit card or, if available, a deposit account.
Once that is paid, you will then be instructed to upload your prepared file. However, if the file is too large or if it was originally published in a different format, meaning it isn’t electronic-only, you may be asked to mail in a physical format. However, most sites will easily qualify for digital deposit, making it much easier to get it done.
Then, comes the waiting game. Though it isn’t as bad as it was a year ago when the USCO had a wait time of as long as 9 months for a certificate, it’s still an estimated six month delay. So don’t be surprised if you don’t get your certificate in a few weeks as that is typical.
Also, make sure that the email address you gave the USCO is valid as they will contact you if they have any questions or problems, which are not uncommon with first registrations but are usually easily corrected.
All in all, the process should take about an hour or so for a first time filer and should be followed by a multi-month wait for the certificate itself.
If you’re intimidated by the idea of registering your site, there are alternatives including services such as GoCopyright that will help you register your site (or other work) for a fairly low price.
That being said, as someone who provides assistance with copyright registrations, I tell people that most copyright holders are much better off doing it themselves as most will learn the ropes quickly and will save both time and money. Plus, as a creator, doing it yourself puts you in much better control of your registrations.
However, if you want help, it is out there and, fortunately, not very expensive.
All in all, registering your site is not that complicated once you’re able to obtain a copy of it that is suitable for upload. The eCOSystem will walk you through most of the actual questions, just be sure to use the help bubbles, and really most of the process is self-explanatory.
The only question that remains is how often should you register. Well, if you consider the work to be published, the answer is fairly easy, once every three months. You don’t have to reregister your older works every time, just be sure to include the new ones.
If you consider it unpublished, the time frame is probably about right to though there is nothing in the law that says that’s the best time to do it. Instead, it’s just a good time frame to do it as it balances protection with practicality.
All in all, registration can be a very good move and can pay great dividends in a dispute. It is not a complicated process though it is one that can be intimidating for new filers.
Your best bet, however, is to dive in, ask questions as they come up and learn the process. You’ll be glad that you did.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.