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How to Get a Copyright: A Step-By-Step Guide

Author at her computer wondering how to get a copyright

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All artists, writers, and creators should know how to get a copyright and enjoy the rights and protections granted by the U.S. Copyright Act. Fortunately, with online options and reasonable fees, copyrighting something is well within your abilities. Here is an explanation of copyright protection and how to get something copyrighted.

What Is a Copyright?

Why would you need to know how to get a copyright? In one word — protection. Copyright is legal protection granted to authors of ‘original works of authorship.’

Original works of authorship are works created by human authors or artists and contain creative and original elements. The protection applies to registered works that are “fixed” — or finished.

Types of works protected under copyright law include:

  • Literary works, like novels, short stories, movie scripts, and computer program code
  • Musical works, including lyrics and musical compositions
  • Dramatic works such as musical theater, plays, and any music accompanying those works
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Original pictures, graphics, sculptures, and other artistic expressions (including original logos)
  • Motion pictures, TV shows, and other audiovisual works (including original YouTube videos)
  • Sound recordings outside musical works, including series involving music, spoken word, or other sound compilations (common category used for music albums)
  • Architectural works

What Rights Does Copyright Protect?

When you know how to copyright something, you gain exclusive rights to your work. That means you are the only one who can do the following:

  • Make copies of your work (e.g., create prints of a painting or paperback copies of a book)
  • Make derivative works based on your registered work (e.g., turn your photographs into t-shirts)
  • Sell copies of your work
  • Perform your work in public (applies to plays, musical theater, motion pictures, and other performance art)
  • Display your work in a public setting (e.g., hanging your paintings in a gallery)
  • Create digital audio transmissions (e.g., performing musical numbers in a podcast or YouTube Channel)

If other people use your work in these ways, you can sue them for copyright infringement. Or, you can give companies or individuals permission to use your work through a licensing agreement, which allows them to use your material for a fee. You can’t take advantage of these options unless your work has a registered copyright.

Who Can Register a Copyright?

Generally, the creator registers the copyright because it belongs to whoever created the work. If two or more people created the work, one creator might register the work, but copyright law gives each creator an equal interest in the work.

An exception to this rule is ‘works made for hire.’ Works created by an employee or an independent contractor belong to the one requesting the work. The employee or contractor may not be able to copyright the work or own any rights.

How to Copyright Something: Basic Steps

Step 1: Create an Original Work

If you want to know how to get a copyright, you first need to create something! Copyright protection applies to original creations like books, movies, and graphic art.

Originality is a low standard, and as long as you didn’t copy someone’s idea directly, you likely pass that requirement. If you are concerned about whether your work is original, you may wish to search the public catalog for similar works.

Step 2: Decide How to Register

You have two options for registering copyright: Online or paper forms.

The Copyright Office prefers online registration, and you likely will, too. Online registration offers lower fees, faster examination and approval, status checking, and fee payment by debit or credit card. You can expect a turnaround time ranging from one to eight months.

If you decide to use paper forms, you must choose the form package based on the type of work. But, be aware that this option can take longer and is more expensive; the filing fee for paper forms starts at $125, and you are looking at a turnaround time of 2 to 19 months.

Step 3: Complete an Application

Start by opening an account with a user ID and password if you decide on online filing. Choose the type of work that most closely matches the work you’re registering. Provide contact information and complete each required section.

For paper filing, choose the form package for your work’s type. The packets include TX (literary works), VA (visual arts), PA (performing arts, including movies), and SR (sound recordings). Fill them out with black or blue ink, and don’t skip sections.

Once finished, pay your filing fee. The online system accepts payments via debit, credit, or bank account. The system will not accept your filing fee until you complete the application. For mailed materials, pay the fee with a check or money order issued to the U.S. Copyright Office.

Step 4: Provide a Deposit Copy

A deposit copy is a copy of your work that you must provide with your application. The Copyright Office will use the deposit copy to decide whether you qualify for a copyright.

If your work is published, you must provide the ‘best edition‘ of your work. The best edition is the highest quality format of your work. For example, if you are registering a music album, you want to provide a CD deposit copy of that album rather than a vinyl record. You can provide an electronic copy of your work; however, you may also have to provide a physical copy. The Copyright Office provides a list of acceptable file formats for electronic deposit copies.

The only exceptions to physical copy requirements are unpublished works or works published only online. For example, a digital copy should be enough if you only take digital photos and never make prints.

For visual art, your deposit copy should be ‘identifying material‘ rather than the best edition. You don’t have to recreate your painting or sculpture to provide a deposit copy. Instead, you take high-quality pictures of each angle, showing the Copyright Office as much of your work as possible.

The Copyright Office sends deposit copies to the Library of Congress once they finish your application.

Step 5: Answer Correspondence

Most applications process smoothly and don’t need further information. Only 19% of all claims require correspondence and clarification.

But if you fall into that category, answer all inquiries as soon as possible. Depending on the Copyright Office’s concerns, you may need to submit a new application or make changes to your original one.

Step 6: Accept or Appeal the Ruling

The Copyright Office doesn’t accept all applications. It may reject yours if:

  • Your work lacks creative authorship (which often occurs when the material is more technical than creative)
  • You did not complete your application, pay your filing fee, or provide an adequate deposit copy
  • Your work doesn’t fall under copyright law, meaning it likely falls under trademark or patent law
  • You submitted a work created by artificial intelligence

If you disagree with the ruling, you can file a request for reconsideration. You must file this appeal within three months of receiving the Copyright Office’s decision.

The request for reconsideration requires a $350 filing fee and must contain the following:

  • A label reading “FIRST RECONSIDERATION” or “SECOND RECONSIDERATION” as applicable
  • The case number that the Copyright Office assigned to you
  • The seven-digit correspondence ID number in the subject line of the letter rejecting your copyright
  • Your name and titles of the work as they appear in your application
  • Why you believe the registration was improperly refused, including exhibits, additional information, and any legal arguments

You can request a second review, but it will require a filing fee of $700.

Struggling With How to Get a Copyright?

Part of knowing how to get a copyright is also knowing when you need help. You may wish to schedule an appointment with a local intellectual property attorney and find some answers. Here is one resource to get you started.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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