When you create an original work of art, such as a video, copyright law automatically protects it. That protection occurs immediately, upon creation. As a practical matter, though, you should place a copyright notice on the work and register it at the U.S. Copyright Office. The main reason for doing this is that registration is a prerequisite to bringing a lawsuit for copyright infringement.
The so-called "poor man’s copyright" – mailing a copy of your work to yourself to obtain a postage date – is not adequate to secure registration, and cannot be used in a court of law to support a case of copyright infringement.
Once you’ve created your video or other work (lyrics, soundtrack, treatment), only you, the copyright owner, can give permission to others to copy the work. As the copyright owner, you have a number of options. You can allow certain people or organizations to copy, distribute or show your work. Of course, if you do not want others to copy your work, that’s also your right. You can simply refuse to license it, keeping all copyright rights for yourself, exclusively. If another party copies your work without your permission, you can bring a lawsuit against that party for copyright infringement. The court, using its discretion, can award you up to $150,000 in statutory damages if someone willfully infringes your copyrighted video.
Now, a friendly word of advice: copyright law is serious business. Do not copy another’s work or any part of it or make another work that is derived from it (a "derivative" work) unless you have the copyright holder’s permission. Of course, since ideas and concepts cannot be protected by copyright, you can videotape a wedding, for instance, even if it has many of the elements of every other wedding: ceremony, dancing, eating and drinking.
The Copyright Notice – What, Where and When
Even though copyright law automatically and immediately protects your work, it’s a good idea to place a copyright notice on it as soon as you create it. If you provide this notice on your video, an infringer will be liable for all actual or statutory damages committed before receiving an actual notice of the copyright registration.
Remember that you’re the one who places the copyright notice on your work before you submit it to the Copyright Office. You don’t need permission to place a copyright notice on your work, and you need not perform a search to see whether someone else has registered the same or similar work under the same or similar title.
In fact, two or more people can register similar works, as long as each person created his work as an original. What no one can do, however, is copy another person’s work and attempt to register it. The copy would no longer be an "original work of art."
Just be sure to place the copyright notice on your work yourself, when you create it. Make sure the copyright notice appears on all of your copies, too. Simply choose one of these forms of the copyright notice:
As you can see, the word (Copyright), abbreviation (Copr.) or symbol () can be used. The symbol is preferable for international protection, but is sometimes difficult to generate on computer or video images. You should completely encircle the letter "c"; don’t use parentheses. In the case of sound recordings (i.e., audio tape), be sure to use an encircled "p" for "phono records" instead of or in addition to an encircled "c" in the copyright notice.
For the date, which is the year (not month and day) in which the author created the work, you can use Arabic or Roman numerals. And, of course, substitute your own name or your organization as the copyright owner. If you have room, add the phrase "All rights reserved" as a second line to the notice, since it removes ambiguity in certain South American countries.
You must use all three components of the notice (the copyright word, abbreviation or symbol; your name, and the year date) on one line for the notice to be effective. Using the copyright symbol by itself is simply a defective notice and does no good.
You can interchange the date and your name, but we prefer to place the date at the end of the notice, so that if we revise our work at a later time, we can merely add the latest date after the first date:
The copyright notice is just that. It gives notice to the public that you own the work. There’s no such thing as providing too much notice. In your videos, you should place the notice on-screen at or close to the beginning of the video or at the end, not hidden somewhere in the middle. You can even add a copyright warning like those at the start of the movies you rent from your video store. You should also include the notice on your videotape or DVD labels and on the box or sleeve that holds your video. For audiotape, place your copyright notice on all labels affixed to the cassettes or compact discs. If you are protecting your written story or script, place your copyright notice on the title page of your manuscript or at the top of the first page.
Which Copyright Application Form to Use
The Copyright Office has separate divisions for different types of works. Various types of copyright forms exist to simplify the job of registering the different types of works. Here are the most frequently used forms and their use:
You can order up to 10 forms directly from the U.S. Copyright Office by telephone or online (see below). Simply call the Copyright Office at (202) 707-9100 and leave a message on the answering machine: your name and address and the forms you need, with instructions.
Online Copyright Application Forms
A complete list of downloadable copyright forms is available at the U.S. Copyright Office’s Web page: www.loc.gov/copyright/forms. In addition to the forms are instructions specific to each type of form. These copyright application forms are available in PDF format and are best viewed with the latest, free Adobe Acrobat Reader program, available at www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep.html. You can access fill-in versions of copyright applications and then complete them online. Finally, print the completed form on your printer. Note that, although you can access the forms online, you will have to mail your application with your videos and filing fee to the Copyright Office.
A second set of more specific instructions is available from the same Web page as the copyright application forms. In order to access the specific instructions for videotapes, for example, you should click "performing arts" (on the same line as "Form PA") and then click "Circular 45." Read the instructions while filling out the application form online.
Even Shorter Forms
The Copyright Office also offers Short Forms in lieu of the standard PA, VA and TX forms. Note: although the Short Forms can not be used for audiovisual works, including motion pictures, they can be used to copyright screenplays, music and lyrics. The Short Forms are appropriate only if you are the only author, have not made the work for hire, and the work is completely new (i.e., it does not contain a substantial amount of material that has been previously published or registered or is in the public domain). Directions for the Short Forms and the forms themselves can be obtained from the Copyright Office by either visiting the forms portion of the Web page or, of course, by calling the Copyright Office directly. The Short Form is only one side of a page containing most of the same inquiries as the standard form, with the same filing fee.
What to Send to the Copyright Office
A checklist is included at the lower right corner of the form. It is always a good idea to check this list immediately prior to mailing your application, deposit materials (that’s a copy of your work) and check or money order to the Register of Copyrights.
In one fairly large envelope, send your signed and dated copyright application, a check in the amount of $30 and a complete copy of your work.
For example, if your work is a written script, send a written copy of it; if your work is an audio soundtrack, send an audio cassette or CD, and if your work is a complete video, send a videotape or DVD.
Since the Copyright Office receives over 50,000 copyright applications each month, you may wish to send your envelope certified, with a return receipt requested, so you know when the Copyright Office receives your materials. A self-addressed, stamped postcard included in your large envelope can accomplish the same thing and save you postage. On the message side of the postcard, you can write something like this:
Received by the U.S. Copyright Office
Copyright application Form PA for:
"Title of your video here"
Check for $30; one videotape.
The mail room staff of the Copyright Office will date stamp your postcard and send it back to you.
First, you’ll receive your self-addressed postcard back. This can take up to three weeks. Then, within four months or so, you can expect to receive your certificate of registration. Keep this certificate in a safety deposit box or similar receptacle for important papers. This is a legal document that you or your legal representatives may need to produce in copyright infringement litigation or when your will is probated.
The Certificate of Registration looks a great deal like your original application (what did you expect for only $30?), but it’s printed on thicker paper and has the Copyright Office seal and a registration number stamped on the upper right-hand corner. Your registration number begins with the two letters of the copyright application form (e.g., PA, SR, TX or VA) and then the letter "u", if your work is unpublished, followed by a number.
What Can Go Wrong?
The Copyright Office is your friend. It is a very forgiving institution. Most problems are not fatal. If you neglected to include a necessary item with your application or if you filled out your application incompletely, incorrectly, inconsistently or ambiguously, the Copyright Office will notify you by telephone or mail. Most commonly, they will send you a letter explaining the problem. The Copyright Office will retain your filing fee check and hold your deposit materials until it hears from you.
Along with the letter, the Copyright Office may also send you a short information sheet and a new, blank copyright application form. Most often, the letter will let you know which information you should change on your application form. If you make the suggested changes and submit the new application within 120 days, you will not have to pay an additional fee, nor will you have to submit new deposit materials.
Occasionally, however, a situation arises that precludes the Copyright Office from approving your application and registering your work. For example, if someone already registered the work, or if you’re attempting to register non-copyrightable subject matter (business forms, for example), or the Copyright Office believes that your work fails to meet a minimum level of originality, your application will be rejected. In the unlikely event that this should happen, you may wish to consult a copyright or patent attorney.
A Better Bargain
As if the current, relatively low application fee of $30 weren’t enough of a bargain to protect your work for 70 years beyond your life, here’s another technique to consider.
You can copy all of the videos you created in the year (say, 2001) and submit them as a collection of videos with only one copyright application and one filing fee check or money order for $30, even if they fit on two or more videotapes. You can’t combine works created during two or more years, however, but you can cover everything created in a specified year with only one application form. Call the work something like "The 2001 Anthology of Videos." Next year, do it again for videos created in 2002. The amount you save, obviously, exceeds the subscription price of Videomaker Magazine, so think about subscribing for a friend this month.
Now that you know everything you need to know about protecting your videos under the Copyright Act, you’re all set. You can start copyrighting. That’s the good news. The bad news (for us copyright lawyers) is that you no longer need a lawyer’s services. You’ve just saved another $200.