Q. Should I register copyright in my manuscript before submitting to an agent, editor, or publisher
A. I answered this question previously, but my answer has changed (unfortunately). In 2008 my answer was “No, unless you are unusually paranoid,” because in my years of experience in the publishing world, I knew of no instance where a legitimate publisher, agent, or editor “stole” the manuscript of an author. The advent of digital publishing, however, requires a modification.
First, a refresher. Copyright registration is NOT necessary to obtain copyright protection in the United States, but it is a prerequisite to the filing of a copyright infringement suit. If registration is made within three months after first publication of the work or before an infringement of the work, statutory damages (damages without proof of loss specific amounts) and attorneys’ fees will be available to the copyright owner in court actions. Statutory damages for “innocent” (non-willful) infringement currently range from $750 to $30,000. If any infringement was committed willfully, you can obtain up to $150,000 for each infringement. Without registration, you only can recover the money you lost as a direct result of the infringement (what you might have earned from the work) plus any profits that the infringer made by selling your work. In many cases, you may be unable to prove any such loss or damages.
Just as important is your right to attorney’s fees. If you have timely registered and win your case, you are entitled to recover your attorney’s fees – even if the award of damages is small. Practically speaking, unless you are independently wealthy, you won’t be able to obtain a lawyer without this benefit.
In days of yore before the Internet and digital publishing, there was little risk of infringement until your book was published and available to be copied. And then the infringer would be required to spend his or her hard cash to have the book formatted and printed. Accordingly, registration typically was made by the publisher for the benefit of the author at the time of first publication.
Now, however, it costs little for someone to gain a copy of a .doc, .mobi, .epub, .pdf, or .html file, and then publish it on the Web or in a POD book. Infringement still is unlikely – but the low cost of publication has created more opportunities for crooks. I have had several clients who discovered their work published on web sites after submitting to disreputable agents and freelance editors.
So – new answer. If you are thinking of sending your manuscript to any of the numerous small Internet publishers that have sprung up, or to subsidy presses, consider registration first. If you are self-publishing, of course, you absolutely must protect yourself by registering either before publication or within three months of publication. Either will grant you the right to sue for infringement and entitle you to statutory damages and attorney’s fees. Go to www.copyright.gov, where you will find a complete set of instructions and forms. The online filing fee is $35.00.