Register Your Copyright Before You Self-Publish

Eero facepalmaa by Tuomas Puikkonen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Eero facepalmaa by Tuomas Puikkonen from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

A few days ago, a friend and fellow author posted on Facebook that someone put his book online as a free download without his permission. Some authors make their work available for free as part of their marketing campaign and that’s their prerogative, and they control where and when they do this.

My friend and I started chatting about what he wanted to do to remedy this situation. A person who owns a copyright has the right to control where their work is copied, displayed, and distributed and has recourse if someone else steals or uses their work. If someone blatantly copies your work and is giving away copies of it, it’s likely copyright infringement.

I thought my friend could qualify to sue for copyright infringement and sue for statutory damages. The copyright laws say that if someone willfully steals your work, you can ask the court to award you up to $150,000 plus attorneys’ fees. Alternatively, you could ask for actual damages, which is how much money you actually lost due to the infringement.  My friend is self-published in this case, so I suspected the potential statutory damages would be higher than the actual ones.

Then my friend dropped a bomb – he hadn’t registered his copyright yet.

I cringed with defeat.

My friend is a smart guy, so he knew that he couldn’t sue for copyright infringement until he registered his copyright.  What he didn’t know what that you have to register your work within 3 months of publication or 1 month of learning of the infringement – whichever happens first – to be eligible for statutory damages.  He can still register his work and sue for the actual damages (which is likely low) and he’d be responsible for paying for his attorneys’ fees. If he doesn’t want to put in the time, energy, or money to sue for infringement, he can still get is legal eagle friend (that’s me) to send a cease and desist letter or a DMCA takedown notice to try to make the infringement stop.

So here’s the take-away lesson from my friend’s experience: If you are a self-published author, register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office before you offer it for sale or download. That way, if someone steals your work, all your options for recourse will still be available to you. You can register your work online and the application fee is only $ 35 or $55, depending on your situation. And if you don’t want to register your work yourself, it’s not that expensive to hire a lawyer to do it for you.

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