Advice - General / Rights and why they are important / Registering a work in the US

The United States is unique in requiring that you register works to gain effective copyright protection. You should therefore consider registering your copyright in your words and pictures in the United States if it seems likely that it will be infringed there.

Note that schemes offering to register works in any other country are, on the face of it, scams. You have copyright simply by virtue of creating a work. If you expect to need to prove the date before which the work was created, you can easily and cheaply do it yourself: post a copy to yourself using the Post Office "signed for" service, keep the receipts, and do not open it when it arrives.

In the US, you must register a work before you can sue for any infringement of your rights in it.

The rules and procedures are quite complicated and this is offered only as a general guide to help you decide whether it's worth investigating further.

Why register your work in the US?

If you have "timely" registration, you can get "statutory damages": an amount not less than $750 per work and up to $150,000 if the infringement is found to be "wilful".

And with "timely" registration, if you win the case the other side must generally pay your attorney's (lawyer's) fees.

Registration is "timely" if it is within three months of the work's first publication (or sometimes later, but before the copyright infringement begins). Those legal fees are likely to be a lot higher if it's on the borderline of timeliness - and remember that even if you do get them back in the end you have to front them while the case goes through.

Statutory damages are independent of the "actual damages" - which would be the assessed cash value of the infringement: broadly, what the infringer would have paid, had they asked for a legitimate licence and presuming you granted it.

If you do not have "timely" registration, you can recover only "actual damages" and cannot reclaim your lawyer's fees. This probably means that you cannot afford to bring the case at all, unless you are rich enough to pursue litigation as a hobby.

If you have timely registration then US courts will presume that your claim to be copyright owner is valid. As a practical matter, the infringer is therefore far more likely to settle out of court.

How to register your work in the US

We have looked only at the online registration process. Paper registration forms are being phased out. Please note:

  • You need to submit copies of the works you register. For unpublished works, that would be an approved electronic file format, such as a JPEG of a photograph or a PDF of a text. For published works, you must submit the "best edition": as we understand it, for works first published outside the US and published online before they are issued in print, a high-quality PDF of the pages involved will do.
  • You need to be aware of the "works made for hire" doctrine in US law. If, for example, you are engaged to do a day's work for a US publication, it will expect to be the first owner of copyright in all works you produce in that day - unless you explicitly agree otherwise or persuade it that your contract is governed by some law other than US law.
  • When you register for an online account with the US Copyright Office you will face expected annoyances such as being required to give a phone number in a valid US format. While researching this we resorted to giving the fictitious number of fictitious detective Jim Rockford - 1-213 555-2368 - and asked them to contact us by email. Further investigation is required.
  • It may be worth re-stating that in UK civil courts the general rule is that the losing side pays both sides' lawyers' fees.

The US copyright office refers to all texts that report news as "Literary Works".

Single works

You can register a single work of any kind, published or unpublished, for US$35.

Groups of published or unpublished photographs

You can register up to 750 photographs at once. They must either be all unpublished; or all published, and published in the same calendar year.

You will need to assign a title to each photograph, and think of a title for the collection - we suspect that "Jo Schmo photographs 2025 Batch 1" is appropriate. There are strict rules for the naming of the spreadsheet file you submit that contains these titles and the file-names of the photos you upload.

The fee is US$55.

Groups of unpublished textual works

You can register a "Group of Unpublished Works" - up to 10 in one batch - and to do this you must select that option from the menu, not the standard registration.

  1. All the works must be unpublished;
  2. they must all be the same type of work - no mixing sculpture and court reports; and
  3. all the works must be created by the same author or the same co-authors, and the author and claimant for each work must be the same person or organization.

The fee is US$55.

Groups of published works

You can register a group of works that have been published in "serials" - newspapers or magazines for example. Obscurely, the sub-categories are "Contributions to Periodicals TX" for textual works and "Contributions to Periodicals VA" for visual works.

  1. All contributions must be created by the same author. The author must be an individual and the works cannot be works made for hire;
  2. the copyright claimant for all the contributions must be the same person or organization;
  3. each work must be first published as a contribution to a periodical, and all the contributions must be first published within a twelve-month period;
  4. the application must identify each contribution, including its date of first publication and the periodical in which it was first published;
  5. the applicant must submit one copy of each contribution, either by submitting the entire issue of the periodical where the contribution was first published, the entire section of the newspaper where it was first published, or the specific page(s) where the contribution was first published; and
  6. special rules apply for contributions published before 1 March 1989.

The fee is US$85.

Special handling

Fees start at US$800 for "expedited registration", for which you must also provide written evidence that your need for speed relates to pending or prospective ligigation, customs matters, or contract or publishing deadlines. Non-expedited registration may take some months to be recorded.

More advice and links...
* Registration US Copyright office
* Best editions US Copyright office (PDF)
* Fees US Copyright office (PDF)
* Copyright registration and enforcement Stanford University Libraries
* 17 U.S. Code §412 Registration as prerequisite to certain remedies for infringement
* 'Signed for' service UK Post Office
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* Rates for the Job good, bad and ugly
* Join the NUJ to get individual advice & representation

Text © Mike Holderness & previous contributors; Moral rights asserted. The collection (database right) © National Union of Journalists. Comments to ffg@londonfreelance.org please. You may find the glossary helpful.

The National Union of Journalists must not, can not and would not wish to dictate rates or terms of engagement to members or to editors. The information presented here is for guidance and as an aid to equitable negotiation only.

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