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Registering Your Copyright
The Copyright Office has built an excellent online presence at www.copyright.gov. Their Web site has extensive information about copyright, including numerous publications, forms, the federal copyright law, copyright regulations, legislative proposals, reports, and more. The photographer should be able to find the answers to most questions about copyright, including how register copyrights.
Registration has always required a correctly filled in application form, the specified fee, and deposit materials that show the content of what is being copyrighted. The registration process has been streamlined and the Copyright Office now prefers to have registration completed electronically on their Web site by what is called the eCO Online System (eCO abbreviates electronic Copyright Office). To encourage photographers and other authors to do this, the fee for online registration is now less than the fee for registration using paper forms. The use of paper forms is expensive for the Copyright Office. To discourage their use for registration, the Copyright Office does not make the paper application forms available off their Web site anymore. To obtain the paper forms a special request must be made to the Copyright Office (the request can be on the Web site).
Among the advantages of eCO online registration are a lower basic registration fee (currently $35), the quickest time to complete the registration, status tracking online, secure online payment, the ability to upload certain deposits materials as electronic files, and 24/7 availability. Anyone can use eCO and most types of works are eligible for eCO (but note that groups of contributions to periodicals cannot use eCO). Currently eCO will accept registrations for (1) a single work; (2) a group of unpublished works by the same author and owned by the same copyright claimant; or (3) multiple works contained in the same unit of publication and owned by the same claimant (such as a book of photographs). The eCO registration process requires filling in the online application form, making payment, and submitting deposit copies.
The deposit copies for eCO can be electronic in a number of situations, including if the work being registered is unpublished, has only been published electronically, or is a published work for which identifying material would be used instead of the work itself. Identifying material for a work of visual art might be used if the work is three dimensional or oversized (more than 96 inches in any dimension). The deposit requirements, including the use of identifying material, are set forth in Circular 40A, Deposit Requirements for Registration of Claims to Copyright in Visual Arts Material. ITAL If a work is eligible for eCO registration but the deposit cannot be electronic, a hard copy can be used and sent to the Copyright Office. General guidelines to registration can be found in Circular 40, Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts.
If eCO registration cannot be used, the next best alternative would be filling in Form CO on the Copyright Office Web site. Form VA is one of the forms for which Form CO substitutes . A copy of the filled-in Form CO should be printed out and mailed to the Copyright Office along with the fee and deposit materials. The fee for registration using Form CO is currently $50.
The least preferable alternative for registration is to use paper forms, such as Form VA (for a work of Visual Art). To discourage use of paper forms, the fee for such an application is the highest–currently $65. Since eCO and Form CO are online processes, a copy of Form VA with instructions is included as Form 27. The goal of the Copyright Office is to phase out paper forms, but for the moment it can be used (at a higher cost) and has instructional value in terms of understanding the components of the online processes.
Of great interest to photographers is the possibility of registering groups of photographs. This is a way to dramatically reduce the cost of registering each photographer individually. Unpublished photographs always benefited from being eligible for registration as an unpublished group. This remains true whether registration is done by eCO, Form CO, or use of the paper Form VA. To qualify for registration as an unpublished group: (1) The group must have a title; (2) The photographs must be assembled neatly; (3) One author must have created or contributed to all the photographs; and (4) The same party must be the copyright claimant for all the photographs.
More problematic has been registering groups of published photographs. The American Society of Media Photographers played a key role in seeking to enlarge the possibilities for group registration of published photographers. Copyright Office publication FL-124, Group Registration of Published Photographs, explains how up to 750 photographs can be registered on one application using Form GR/PPh/CON (which includes Form VA). To qualify, the following conditions must be met: (1) The same photographer must have taken all the photographs; (2) All the photographs must have been published in the same calendar year; and (3) The copyright claimant for all the photographs must be the same.
FL-124 explains that more than 750 photographs can be registered for a single filing fee if the photographer uses Form CO or Form VA, but to do so the date of publication must be included with each photograph deposited. Also, Form CO or Form VA can only be used for such groups if the group is unpublished photographs assembled into a collection as explained in the preceding paragraph or published works within one unit of publication (such as photographs in a book). [This paragraph is a problem, because the Web site info for Form CO contradicts FL-124. On 8/2 I queried the Copyright Office to get an answer to this.]
In addition, photographs published in newspapers or magazines during a twelve month period can be made into a group on Form GR/CP (which includes Form VA). This is possible if: (1) The same photographer created all the photographs; (2) The author is not an employer for hire; (3) The photographs all were published in the same twelve-month period as contributions to newspapers or magazines; and (4) The copyright claimant is the same for all the photographs.
For a more extensive discussion of the legal aspects of copyright, the photographer can consult Legal Guide for the Visual Artist by Tad Crawford (Allworth Press).