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How Do I Get a Copyright?

This is one of the most common questions I get from authors and artists. When they have created an original work of art, they want to know what they need to do to establish their copyrights.

The good news is that copyrights exist immediately upon creation. That means as soon as the author’s or artist’s creative expression is fixed in a book, on a canvas, or in bronze, they have copyrights. Nothing more is required for the author or artist to claim copyrights in their work. The rights exist immediately upon creation.

Often, artists think they must federally register their work to have copyrights. But that is not true—federal registration is not required for a person to claim copyrights in their works. There are, however, significant benefits to federally registering a work with the Copyright Office. The two most noteworthy benefits are the right to sue copyright infringers in federal court and the right to statutory damages.

Federal registration is a mandatory step before an artist can sue someone in federal court for copyright infringement. Because registration can often take months to complete, an author might have to wait several months to pursue an infringer. That is one reason many seasoned authors and artists will register their works immediately. If someone starts illegally copying them, they can go straight to federal court without waiting.

Federal registration can also allow an author or artist to pursue statutory damages from an infringer. These are automatic damages that a federal court can award regardless of how much if any money the infringer has made from the infringement. Statutory damages can be extremely helpful when an author or artist discovers infringement quickly enough to stop the infringer from profiting or when connecting profits to infringement is difficult. To take advantage of statutory damages, however, the work must be registered shortly after creation.

So while there are advantages to federally registering a copyrightable work, an author or artist’s copyrights exist immediately upon creation and regardless of federal registration.