Thursday, April 12, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Another Service You Don't Need

The other day, I ran across a pair of interesting websites: The Intellectual Property Rights Office and its Copyright Registration Service.

Although you could be pardoned for assuming that something called The Intellectual Property Rights Office, with its important-looking website and official-looking seals, is a governmental enterprise of some sort, that's not the case. According to its About page, IPRO is "an independent, non-governmental organization...first established in the United Kingdom as a for-profit enterprise." In other words, this is not an officially sanctioned service--it's a private business selling something called "international copyright protection."

What exactly is "international copyright protection?" Well, that's not really defined. But if you're a creator with a work recorded in electronic format, you can send it in to IPRO's Copyright Registration Service and receive a "unique CRS Registration Number" intended to provide "independent third-party verification of your ownership of your work," plus the right to display the CRS seal in order to "discourage potential plagiarists from misappropriating your work." There is, of course, a fee, which varies depending on the amount of time you want to register for (anywhere between 4 and 15 years). There's also a retrieval charge if you want to retrieve your work, whether as a backup copy, in case you lose the original, or with "supporting documentation" from the CRS, in case you need to prove ownership.

The service is available to anyone in a Berne Convention signatory nation (the Berne Convention is the international source for copyright law), and, according to CRS's helpful FAQ page, one registration is sufficient. "If your work was created in one of the 162 nations which are part of the Berne Convention...then your work will be protected in all other Berne Convention nations. It is therefore not necessary to seek protection in each individual nation." (Whew. Otherwise it could get expensive!)

What the FAQ fails to mention is that the Berne Convention ensures copyright protection without requiring any formalities, such as copyright registration, as a prerequisite to bringing an infringement suit. As a result, most countries have no formal copyright registration process. That's right--in most Berne signatory countries, you do not need to register your copyright in any way, shape or form in order to be protected or have legal standing to bring an infringement suit.

What about the countries where you do need to register? In the United States, for instance, you must have previously registered copyright in order to sue in court for infringement. There's no subsitute for official registration, however. The ONLY kind of registration that will qualify you to bring a court case is registration with the US Copyright Office.

So that's two reasons why you don't need CRS's registration service--first, because registration is unnecessary in most countries, and second, because in countries where registration is necessary, the service CRS offers isn't a substitute. This is acknowledged in CRS's Registration Terms and Conditions--a.k.a. the fine print, which many people may not bother to read: "Registering your Work with the IP Rights Office Copyright Registration Service provides supporting evidence intended to help prove your ownership of copyright. It does not provide statutory protection, nor is it a formal copyright."

What it all boils down to, in other words, is that CRS's service is an electronic version of what's popularly known as "poor man's copyright"--where you put your work in an envelope, seal it, send it to yourself, and retain it unopened. This too is supposed to help you prove ownership of copyright, since the envelope is postmarked, thus (theoretically) showing a date of completion. However, poor man's copyright is unlikely to hold up in court, in part because it's easy to fake--you could have mailed the envelope to yourself empty, and filled and sealed it later. For the same reasons, CRS's service may not be legally credible either.

Why pay a service to archive and date stamp your work, anyway, when it's so easy to keep drafts, notes, computer files, correspondence referencing your work, and the like? Any of this will do fine as supporting evidence of ownership in the event of infringement (which is HIGHLY unlikely unless you're published--one reason why, in countries that have an official registration process, it's not necessary to register unpublished work).

As for the other "benefit" of CRS registration, the claim that displaying the CRS seal will discourage plagiarists...in an online context, it's unlikely that an official looking seal will be any more (or less) effective than a simple copyright notice, which is free. As for print, the suggestion in CRS's FAQ that seals "can be placed, for instance, on the cover page of a manuscript" is just plain bad advice. Placing a copyright notice of any sort on a manuscript is neither necessary nor advisable, and will make you look like an amateur.

CRS is not unique. There are many other companies and websites that offer some sort of faux copyright registration or date stamping service (like the UK Copyright Service or the World Wide Online Creators' Registry or--and this one is free, but it's notable for the amount of misinformation it provides--MyFreeCopyright.com), or charge a hefty fee to fill out and file official registration forms that you could complete yourself (such as The Copyright Website or Click & Copyright). At best, they're unnecessary. At worst, they mislead writers into believing that their work is officially protected, or somehow made safer by use of the service. Either way, they are using aspiring writers' prevalent but entirely unfounded fear of theft to make a buck. Skip them. They're a waste of money.

(For a more detailed discussion of copyright, including why US writers don't need to register copyright for unpublished work, and a dissection of some common copyright myths, see the Copyright page of Writer Beware.)

5 comments:

Caitlin said...

I didn't know that you had to register copyright in the US. I come from Australia and currently live in the UK, and in both countries it's inherent in your work without any registration requirement.

Does this mean that as a non-US writer I am NOT protected if someone in the US infringes my copyright? Maybe for a novel, I would go through the process of copyright registration but I also work as a freelance journalist and it could make my life very difficult if I had to register copyright for every article I ever write. I realise it's only in case of litigation for infringement and it may not be worth pursuing that path for other reasons but I would be unhappy to learn that it wasn't even an option.

I remember when I was a little girl, books used to have 'for copyright reasons this book is not available in the USA' printed on the back. This is no longer the case and I thought it was because the US had normalised its copyright laws to international standards.

Victoria Strauss said...

Does this mean that as a non-US writer I am NOT protected if someone in the US infringes my copyright?

You are protected. The US is a Berne signatory, and while laws differ from country to country (registration is just one difference; there's also variation, for instance, in the term of copyright and whether or not moral rights are acknowledged), the basics of Berne, which ensure copyright protection from the moment of creation, apply in all Berne countries.

I think (and someone please correct me if I'm wrong) that the US registration requirement would only be an issue if you wanted to sue in US court. (You can register post-infringement and still be eligible to sue, though if registration post-dates infringement or publication by more than three months, the damages you can seek are limited.) If you pursued remedies through Australian or UK courts, you'd be subject to the copyright laws of those countries, which don't require registration, even if your infringer was in the USA.

If you publish in the USA, registration is a good idea. For a book, your publisher will register copyright for you, at its own expense. For articles--in a magazine or newspaper, for instance--the publisher will register a collective copyright that covers the compilation, but may not protect your individual article. Associations like the American Society of Journalists and Authors recommend registration for this reason. The US Copyright Office has a low-cost multiple registration option, so you don't need to register individually for every article.

There's no reason, however, to register unpublished work; infringement, and therefore registration, really only becomes an issue once you're published.

Copyright is an incredibly complex subject. If you're really concerned about this, it might be a good idea to ask the advice of a copyright expert in the UK or Australia. If you're a member of a writers' association, they may be able to help.

Gregory Ludwig said...

In the U.S., copyright registration is necessary in order to recover legal-defense costs if you sue for infringement and win. In one obvious sense, registration confers benefits because it makes it much easier in a practical legal sense to prove the work belongs to you than if you didn't register. I believe the provision about recovery of legal costs is spelled out in some U.S. Copyright Office literature. I could look in my paperwork on this if people want this verified.
All this said, I agree with Victoria that all the services that offer to register a work for you are unnecessary at best. You can do it yourself for less cost.

Anonymous said...

Well, I had some experience of programming copyright ... though have moved to poetry these days.

In the UK, the most important thing is to put the copyright logo, the year, and your name. Followed by the words "All rights reserved". Then you are covered because it is exprressly mentioned in the piece of work as a footnote.

Although I publish from the UK on things like myspace, that no doubt would try and use some US legal ruling, as a UK resident I can file in the UK in a British court ... because its the place of my residence and it was published from a computer terminal from within the country.

I just finish all my works with:
© The Anon Poet, December 2007. All rights reserved.
http://www.myspace.com/theanonpoet

Especially as I do it anonymously, I put the web address so people know where it came from.

Commonly people can copy, as long as they acknowlege where it came from and reprint the copyright. Its when they dont they then get in trouble.

My professional CV has a copyright, along with my website address as the author to stop agencies taking the information and touting it to other companies.

Truth be told, none of us can afford the legal expense it would take ... along with the risk of footing the other parties legal fees in the case of a adverse ruling. But it does strenthen the case in the pre-trial so you can take it that far with a strong position to enable an out of court settlement, which lets face it, is how most of these things end.

Victoria Strauss said...

In the UK, the most important thing is to put the copyright logo, the year, and your name. Followed by the words "All rights reserved". Then you are covered because it is exprressly mentioned in the piece of work as a footnote.

While a copyright notice may provide a psychological deterrent to anyone thinking of appropriating your work, especially if it's published online, it provides no additional protection under copyright law. This is as true in the UK as it is in any other Berne signatory country.

Nor, in Berne signatory countries, is a copyright notice necessary to invoke protection. You have that automatically. If your work were infringed and you were to pursue the infringer in court, the fact that you'd appended a copyright notice would make no difference one way or another.

Commonly people can copy, as long as they acknowlege where it came from and reprint the copyright.

Acknowledging the source and reprinting a copyright notice is not a defense against a claim of copyright infringement, if the copying goes beyond fair use and the work has been copied without the author's permission.