How to Copyright a Book (12 Essential Questions Answered)

by | Mar 11, 2010

If you are looking for a quick and easy guide about how to copyright a book, you have come to the right place. In this article, I’m going to show you how to choose the right copyright application, fill it out, determine how much it will cost, and exactly how to send your application and book(s) into the copyright office.

Although this process seems daunting, it is surprisingly not as difficult as many authors worry that it will be. However, because you are dealing with the government and your creative masterpiece at the same time, it pays to be cautious and do things properly.

Authors are often understandably concerned that someone might appropriate the book on which they’ve worked so long and hard. The good news is that any work you create is automatically and immediately protected by copyright. Of course, it is still beneficial to register your work, as it provides extra legal protection and could offset the cost of any necessary legal fees to protect the registered copyright.

One of the most common questions I hear from self-publishers hasn’t changed at all over the years: “How do I copyright a book?”

I usually give authors the 5-Minute Guide to Copyright and advise them to wait until their book is back from the printer to register the copyright. Of course, before sending the book off to printing we have ensured that the book has an accurate and complete copyright page to begin with.

But now, book in hand and still a sparkle in the eye, you are ready to register your copyright. Let’s get started.

Visiting the Copyright Office— Online, That Is

The Copyright Office, a branch of the Library of Congress, is located in the James Madison Memorial Building in Washington, D.C. However, we’re going to their online location at https://www.copyright.gov/.

Here’s what you’ll find when you get there:

a screenshot showing the page from copyright.gov on how to copyright a book

How to Copyright a Book – Registration Basics

You will need three elements to complete your registration:

  1. A completed application,
  2. A (nonrefundable) filing fee, and
  3. A (nonreturnable) deposit, which means a copy of your book

The first step in registering your copyright is finding out which of these two paths you should take to apply.

  1. Online Registration— this is done through the electronic Copyright Office (eCO). This is the best, fastest, and least expensive way to register most books, and is the method much preferred by the eCO.
    1. $35 for a single application, $55 for standard
    2. Online tracking of the status of your copyright application
    3. Faster processing time and secure payment
    4. Option to upload your book electronically or mail it in

    The vast majority of written books will use the single application, but the distinction of whether a work will require a single or standard application depends upon a few things. You can use the single application if your book was written by a single author who is also the only claimant to the work, and that work was not made for hire. Any work that is a compilation of multiple works, was created for hire, or was written by multiple authors (or artists, performers, photographers) will use the standard application. If you are unsure about whether you should use the single or standard application, check out this page.

    How to do it: Use this link to go to the electronic Copyright Office and register for an account to get started. You’ll then follow the prompts to register your book.

    How long it takes: Most electronically filed applications take up to 9 months to receive their certification, though many will receive theirs earlier.

  2. Registration with Paper Forms— The traditional method for filing copyright. Most written books will use the form TX (for literary works), while photography books and other books made up of visual arts will use the VA form (for visual arts). Once you have downloaded the appropriate form you must print it out, fill it in, sign it, and mail it with at least one copy of your manuscript (which the copyright office calls a ‘deposit’) and a check or money order for the application fee of $85.

    How to do it: Find the appropriate form on this page of the Copyright Office’s website

    How long it takes: Those who register with paper forms may receive their certifications up to 18 months after they have applied, though some will receive theirs earlier.

Regardless of which method you choose, your copyright registration becomes effective on the date that the copyright office receives the complete submission.

Q and A with the Copyright Office

Last, I’m going to reprint here some of the useful questions and answers from the Copyright Office’s website. I’ve found that authors who are thinking about self-publishing have enormous trepidation when it comes to copyright, and are subject to all kinds of superstitions and misinformation. The only cure is accurate information. Here it is, from “the horse’s mouth.”

Do I have to send in my work? Do I get it back?
You must send the required copy or copies of the work to be registered. Your copies will not be returned. If you register online using eCO eService, you may attach an electronic copy of your deposit. However, even if you register online, if the Library of Congress requires a hard-copy deposit of your work, you must send what the Library defines as the “best edition” of your work. “[…] Upon their deposit in the Copyright Office, […] all copies and identifying material, including those deposited in connection with claims that have been refused registration, are the property of the U.S. government.”

Will my deposit be damaged by security measures in place on Capitol Hill?
To avoid damage to your hard-copy deposit caused by necessary security measures, package the following items in boxes rather than envelopes for mailing to the Copyright Office:

  • electronic media such as audio cassettes, video cassettes, CDs, and DVDs
  • microform
  • photographs
  • slick advertisements, color photocopies, and other print items

May I register more than one work on the same application? Where do I list the titles?
You may register unpublished works as a collection on one application with one title for the entire collection if certain conditions are met. It is not necessary to list the individual titles in your collection. Published works may only be registered as a collection if they were actually first published as a collection and if other requirements have been met. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Registration Procedures.”

Do I have to use my real name on the form? Can I use a stage name or a pen name?
There is no legal requirement that the author be identified by his or her real name on the application form. For further information, see FL 101, Pseudonyms. If filing under a fictitious name, check the “Pseudonymous” box when giving information about the authors.

Will my personal information be available to the public?
Yes. Please be aware that when you register your claim to a copyright in a work with the U.S. Copyright Office, you are making a public record. All the information you provide on your copyright registration is available to the public and will be available on the Internet.

Can I submit my manuscript on a computer disk?
No. Floppy disks and other removable media such as Zip disks, except for CD-ROMs, are not acceptable. Therefore, the Copyright Office still generally requires a printed copy or audio recording of the work for deposit. However, if you register online using eCO eService, you may attach an electronic copy of your deposit. However, even if you register online, if the Library of Congress requires a hard-copy deposit of your work, you must send what the Library defines as the “best edition” of your work. For further information, see Circular 7b, Best Edition of Published Copyrighted Works for the Collection of the Library of Congress, and Circular 7d, Mandatory Deposit of Copies or Phonorecords for the Library of Congress.

Can I submit a CD-ROM of my work?
Yes. The deposit requirement consists of the best edition of the CD-ROM package of any work, including the accompanying operating software, instruction manual, and a printed version, if included in the package.

Does my work have to be published to be protected?
Publication is not necessary for copyright protection.

How much do I have to change in my own work to make a new claim of copyright?
You may make a new claim in your work if the changes are substantial and creative, something more than just editorial changes or minor changes. This would qualify as a new derivative work. For instance, simply making spelling corrections throughout a work does not warrant a new registration, but adding an additional chapter would. See Circular 14, Copyright Registration in Derivative Works and Compilations, for further information.

Do you have special mailing requirements?
If you register online, you may attach an electronic copy of your deposit unless a hard-copy deposit is required under the “Best Edition” requirements of the Library of Congress. See Circular 7b. If you file using a paper application, our only requirement is that all three elements—the application, the copy or copies of the work, and the filing fee—be sent in the same package. Please limit any individual box to 20 pounds. Many people send their material to us by certified mail, with a return receipt request, but this is not required.

A Final Word on Copyright

Well, there you have it. In practice, this is not a complicated process. Most people will simply log onto the Copyright Office website, create an account and fill out the online form. It doesn’t take long and it’s not very intimidating. In the interest of being thorough, I like to give you all the options so you can decide which suits you best.

But don’t neglect this important task. Although your book will still be copyrighted, if you don’t send in the forms and the filing fee, your copyright will not be registered. And it’s the registration that will be critical if there’s any dispute about your copyright in the future.

Takeaway: The simplest way to copyright your book is through the online facility provided by the Copyright Office. Be aware of your choices in registering your copyright, but don’t fail to get it done.

A Digression and a Visit from Pete Masterson

Author’s Note: When this article was published in 2010, the Copyright Office was dealing with a huge backlog of applications and infringements, and I looked into it. I have kept this diversion from the guide as it is an interesting piece of living history, and also because Pete’s advice about why one might use a courier service may still be relevant to some who are worried about their work being damaged by irradiation.

I noticed while navigating the Copyright Office website that there was a strange notice appearing here and there. It said: Please note that our mail service is severely disrupted. I had read about serious backlogs at the Copyright Office, so I used the terrific Yahoo Self-Publishing discussion list to find out what others knew about the situation. Here is the response I received from Pete Masterson. Pete is a longtime book designer, currently the president of BAIPA (Bay Area Independent Publishers Association) and the author of Book Design and Production for Authors and Publishers. With his permission, I reprint his response here:

An interesting historical note. Shortly after the Arab terrorists attacked us on 9/11, there were various threats and attacks including the Anthrax attacks and scares. For security reasons, the copyright office had all incoming packages sequestered somewhere by the Postal Service. (In an old salt mine or cavern, I think) It took ages for the Postal Service to get around to checking the packages and processing them, and finally delivering them to the copyright office.

The Postal Service had not bothered stamping “received” dates on the parcels, or even tossing them in bags marked with the “received” dates. Or properly organizing them by dates received in any way. Many of the parcels were sent with stamps, and many cancellations were illegible.

Thus, there were real issues with the effective dates of copyright registrations, and many registrants were unfortunately stripped of their ability to sue infringers. The copyright office eventually used some pretty sloppy “Kentucky Windage” to guesstimate effective dates for many thousands of registrations, by adding a given number of days to the mailing date and figuring THAT would be the date when the thing SHOULD have been delivered. The guesstimated effective dates were based on legible postmarks. For those with no postmarks . . . tough luck; THEIR effective date was as much as a year or more later than the legitimate effective date would have been.

Having been warned – by both a Postal Service and copyright office employee – years before that, my own registrations were not affected much.

I haven’t used UPS to send in registrations.

Not an answer to the question — but a side issue. If you send a package to the Copyright Office (or any Federal agency), use a courier service — either FedEx or UPS. (Doesn’t matter if you use a ground or air service.) All packages via the USPS are irradiated (to kill biological threats) and the treatment is damaging to many books, especially those printed as digital color copies. More importantly, the service adds a significant delay to the process.

FedEX and UPS packages are not irradiated (because you can’t anonymously send packages as you can via USPS) and are not delayed.

A publisher I know sent off a copy of a book to a friend who works for a Federal Agency to his business address. Since it was a package, the government routed it through the irradiation process.

During irradiation, the book is exposed to ionizing radiation at a level that will kill all biologic organisms. It also, as a side effect, heats the target of the radiation. The result for a moderate sized (150 page) book printed in digital full color was to melt the toner, causing the book to become one solid mass — and the edges of many pages showed signs of scorching.

The book, as received, was completely unreadable and unusable.

In this case, the book was a gift to a friend. Think of how damaging to your reputation it could be if that was what was received when submitting a book for consideration by a Federal Agency!

I hope that this article has helped you to find the information necessary to register your work’s copyright, but if it hasn’t you may want to take a look at the Copyright Office’s in-depth FAQ page.

Photo: Big Stock Photo

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85 Comments

  1. Sharon Goldinger

    Hi, Velizar,

    No–no one in the copyright office will steal your copyright while your application is being processed. I’ve had to wait anywhere from three to nine months for the paperwork. Be patient. It will come.

    Reply
  2. Velizar

    Can someone tell me does it possible my literature text to be stolen by someone in U.S Copyright office while I am waiting for my certificate? i am just wondering, becausethe term for waiting for the certificate is too long and some things can happen!…

    Reply
  3. Sharon

    Terrence, yes, publish your book. The optimum schedule is to publish your book (your publication date) and within 90 days of that date, you should file for your copyright.

    Reply

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