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.)