Sunday, March 23, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Copyright Scam: US Copyright Registry

If you're a writer, you probably have a website. If you have a website, you may recently have been emailed an official-looking WEBSITE COPYRIGHT LICENSING NOTICE from the US Copyright Registry, informing you that your website "has not been protected and is now available for copyright registration."

Reading on, alarmed website owners discover the following (all grammatical and other errors faithfully reproduced):

IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE UNITED STATES COPYRIGHT LAW, TITLE 92, Sec. 106 to 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: Rights of attribution and integrity: the author shall have the right to claim authorship of that work, and prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work which he or she did not create.

Be advised: Protecting a website is the responsibility of the owner of the website and must be registered through the United States Patent and Trademark office to legally prevent others from infringing on the owners rights and copying a website. It is the responsibility of the website owner to complete registration to protect their intellectual property and bring suit in federal court for infringement and obtain statutory damages up to $150,000.


Say what? The US Patent and Trademark office? What's that got to do with registering copyright? Also, the US Copyright Law is known as Circular 92, not Title 92, and the "rights and attribution" language quoted above applies to the visual arts, not written text--such as that on a website.

The email concludes, ominously:

You are required to advise the US Copyright Registry of your intent to license this website if registration is administered through the UCR as this is your final notice.

Note: you may disregard this notice. If you disregard this notice or fail to reply: UCR and the United States Patent and Trademark office will NOT be liable for infringement of your website, interruption of business activity or business losses.


To avoid this dreadful fate, all you have to do is call an 800 number and mention the official-looking tracking number provided in the email.

All of the above was enough to get my scam sense tingling. A visit to the Registry's website--which offers misinformation such as "Copyright Registration is required to legally prevent others from copying your website" and touts the use of its seal, which "helps prevent potential infringers from copying your work"--confirmed my hunch, as did a quick bit of Googling. I was curious, however, about costs.

So I called.

The phone menu offers several options, some of which have nothing to do with sales but all of which lead to a salesperson. I dealt with a pleasant young man, who immediately asked for my tracking number. As it happens, I didn't have one, since I'd heard about the Registry from someone else. No problem; all I had to do was provide my URL.

A few minutes on hold, and then he returned to tell me the good news--US Copyright Registry could indeed register copyright on my website! If I signed up today, I'd receive my certificate of registration from the Library of Congress within 6 to 8 weeks.

"Wait a sec," I said. "Library of Congress? Your email said the US Patent and Trademark Office."

"Oh," he said, flustered, "well, you know, it's both of them."

"Both of them? You mean they both issue a certificate?"

"Uh, no, it's just one certificate. But it comes from both offices."

I decided not to torture him further. "So how much will registration cost me?"

"Based on your website's size"--which he had no way of assessing, considering that all he'd done was access my Whois information--"it'll be a total of $350."

"Is that a one-time fee? What if I add new material?"

"Well, then you'll need to re-register. Most of our customers re-register once a year."

"And what would the cost be for that?"

"$350, or maybe a bit more if the website got a lot bigger."

"The same $350? So I don't get a customer discount?"

"Uh, no. We don't do that. So...can I sign you up?"

I told him I needed to mull it over and would call back. Somewhat to my surprise, he didn't try to pressure me with limited time offers or horror stories about infringed websites.

Not once did he ask me if I was the copyright holder, or if I had the right to register copyright for my website--despite an entire section of the US Copyright Registry's website describing the circumstances under which website owners may not be copyright holders. I would love to know if the registration certificate the Registry sends out is bogus--or indeed, if they send any certificate at all. Sadly, I don't have $350 to burn.

There's no way to know how many people will fall for this. Given the general level of ignorance regarding copyright, however, as well as people's entirely unfounded terror of intellectual property theft, I'd guess that the money is rolling in.

For the real scoop on copyright, check out Writer Beware's Copyright page.

11 comments:

barrettmanor said...

Plagiarism Today has an interesting article on those folks. You've probably seen it, but for those that haven't it's worth a read..

Maria Zannini said...

Unbelievable. Every time I think scam artists can't get any lower, they find ways to surprise me. Thanks for posting this.

Leatherdykeuk said...

That's genuinely scary. Thanks for the heads-up.

Anonymous said...

These people also run the same scam on people who own patents. They send out a mailing that looks very official and makes it look like you have to give them a lot of money to keep your patent valid.

You don't.

Kristi Holl said...

Don't you sometimes wonder how much good work people like this could do if they just bent their creativity to doing something honest?

ALC said...

Isn't it some sort of crime to impersonate a federal agency?

green_knight said...

I've recently seen the guidelines of a small epublisher state that you need to submit proof of copyright registration with your novel.

Err, say what?

Deb said...

I wouldn't sweat the small-press copyright thing. It's legit. In some contracts, it states that copyright must be registered by the author, and the publisher can request a photocopy of the certificate. Two of mine were like that. I just sent it off per the instructions on the web site, paid the fee, and I had my little form in 6-8 weeks.

Victoria Strauss said...

I've recently seen the guidelines of a small epublisher state that you need to submit proof of copyright registration with your novel.

Err, say what?


Like net royalties, this is not ideal, but it is pretty common for small publishers, both e- and paper. While it does suggest that the publisher is looking to minimize its financial outlay (which may not be so great for authors), it's not necessarily a sign of a questionable publisher.

green_knight said...

re: authors submitting proof of copyright registration:

it's not necessarily a sign of a questionable publisher.

This surprises me. According to everything I thought I knew about copyright, there's absolutely no advantage to registering an unpublished work. Also, if you're submitting to a genuine publisher, isn't there a likelyhood that you will make substantial changes so that you would need to register the work upon publication anyway? Asking for 'proof of registration' (which is only meaningful if something is published) looked like a clueless flag to me.

Will said...

Wow. Actually I filled out a form from the government's real copyright website - or was it? - and was scammed. I was given the form and link from my college professors who are, to this day, confused on what happened. So I'm looking around to find the REAL, real copyright office. Also, Trademark and Patents, while being seperate from copyrights, have a lot to do with protecting your work in general. You need a copyright for a story or art design, but a trademark to secure the name, oh say like "Mickey Mouse." Patents? No clue yet.