How to File a Copyright Application with the U.S. Copyright Office

By Lee Hall, J.D.

How to File a Copyright Application with the U.S. Copyright Office

By Lee Hall, J.D.

A copyright is automatic for an original piece of creative work. Examples of such works include a rough manuscript of a book or play, a photo on a blog, a video for a social media channel, or even a cartoon character. In each case, the creator holds a copyright for the work when it evolves from an idea in the author's imagination into a fixed work in a tangible form. Here are the basic elements in filing an application.

Desktop computer which says "copyright" on screen

1. Know what can be copyrighted.

Most people associate copyrights with written work. The category of literary work that copyrights protect is broad. It can include a blog and also the code employed to create that blog. Other kinds of works that qualify for copyright registration include:

  • Musical works or sound recordings
  • Plays, pantomimes, and dance
  • Visual works including sketches, maps, paintings, photos and other graphics, or sculptures
  • Videos and films
  • Architectural designs and buildings

When registering a work, review the categories carefully, noting that some works could be registered under multiple categories. Dance could be registered as a choreographic work in written form but also become an audiovisual work once filmed.

2. Be sure your work is original, creative expression.

Only an original, creative contribution from an author of a work may be copyrighted.

The work cannot be copied from another creator, nor can well-known phrases, statements of fact, or lists of names or ingredients be copyrighted. To claim copyright, the author must arrange these items or express them in a unique, original way. The unique expression—not the lists—can be protected by copyright.

Be prepared to state any limitations of your claim to the copyright in your application. Are there elements of the work you do not own? Supply names and contact information for any party involved in licensing and permissions.

3. Know how to properly identify the work.

A certified application must identify the work with:

  • The title
  • The work's date and country of publication
  • The year of the work's completion (the earliest version of the work in tangible form)

The application asks for names and contact details of both author and claimant. The author is the creator of the work. If you are the author and the one claiming the copyright, consider yourself both author and claimant.

In other cases, the author may create the item as a work-for-hire within the scope of employment or design the work under a contract for another party. If the claimant is the employer or party that commissioned the work, describe how the author transferred the claim of copyright ownership. Did the employer or party commissioning the work acquire the rights by a written contract? Or is there an inheritance or some other kind of transfer?

The claimant receives the certificate of registration by mail from the U.S. Copyright Office. Alternatively, you may name a correspondence contact or a licensing and permissions contact to receive the certificate.

4. Submit the certification, fee, and deposit.

Your signature as the claimant, or the signature of the claimant's authorized agent, certifies that the information you submit is complete and accurate.

Include the required filing fee and submit ("deposit") one copy of unpublished work or two copies of published work to the U.S. Copyright Office.

The Electronic Copyright Office enables you both to pay and upload the deposit online. After your electronic deposit is complete, U.S. copyright law's Mandatory Deposit requires you to deposit two hard copies of the work within three months of its U.S. publication date. Note that failure to meet the mandatory deposit requirements incurs a fine for each piece of work plus the retail cost of copies.

Once registered, your copyright is public information, available in the federal copyright database. You now have strong protection for your creative work.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.