Writers, and especially writers who produce lots of unique content, don’t always register the copyright to a particular piece. It’s often assumed that the publisher will copyright the overall collective work, consisting of the writer’s and all others’ contributions, and the writer will be protected. This is not the case. Even if the publisher does copyright the larger work, only the publisher’s interests in the larger collective work will be protected. Assuming the writer’s work is not a “work-for-hire” (where the publisher owns the rights to the piece), the writer must register his copyright in order to pursue any claim for infringement.
A copyright arises the moment an original work is fixed in a tangible form. For a writer, this means a copyright arises when he hits the Save button. If the piece forever resides only on the hard drive, there may be little threat of future infringement. But a writer’s published work is immediately subject to infringement.
U.S. Copyright law provides robust remedies to copyright holders whose works are infringed, including the right to proceed in federal court, the potential to get an injunction requiring destruction of the infringing materials, the right to statutory damages (an amount of damages set by Congress for each discreet infringement, without regard to the amount of actual damages) and attorney’s fees. The threat of statutory damages and paying the other side’s attorney’s fees is a potent motivator to publishers and other infringers to resolve the claim before it gets to a jury. But these remedies only become available after registering the copyright with the Copyright Office. The writer must register the copyright prior to the infringement, or within three months after the infringement occurs, to be able to assert these powerful remedies.
Registering a copyright is easy and cheap (electronic registration is only $35). It just makes sense to do so promptly upon publication in order to obtain all available remedies in the event of infringement. Any questions? Consult an attorney.