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The Steps Involved in Applying for a Copyright

written by: Joli Ballew•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/12/2010

Obtaining a copyright is the first step in protecting original work you’ve created including art, poetry, music, literature, multi-media data, computer software, and similar items. We'll explain more about the copyright process, including how to formally register for a copyright.

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    Copyright Basics

    This may come as a surprise, but a copyright is automatically secured the minute you create your original work. That said, you don't actually "apply for a copyright". As stated in the “Copyright Basics” PDF document on the U.S. Copyright Office Web site, “No publication or registration or other action in the Copyright Office is required to secure copyright. There are, however, certain definite advantages to registration.” With that in mind, we’ll commence here with the instructions for “registering” a copyright.

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    Copyright Forms - Online Options

    So, how do you copyright something? To register an original work of art, computer animation, text, motion picture, computer software, or other unique “work of authorship,” you must first acquire the proper copyright forms. The fastest and cheapest way to complete this part of the task is to visit the Forms webpage of the U.S. Copyright Office. If you decide to register online, you’ll download and fill out the Form CO, Application for Copyright Registration. Online filings currently cost $35. CO Form 1 

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    Alternate Registration Methods

    Some works can’t be registered online. In these cases, you’ll have to print and mail the forms. Works included in this are those for which a copy cannot be sent, including those in “groups,” such as groups of performing, visual, or literary art works published as contributions to periodicals, items in serial publications, and groups of daily newspapers or newsletters. Other items that must be registered in this manner include:

    • Three dimensional mask works
    • Renewals
    • Restored works
    • Vessel hull designs
    • And many other physical types of works
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    Final Thoughts

    • When working toward a copyright, remember, you don't ask "How do I apply for a copyright", you ask "How do I register for a copyright?".
    • Copyrights only protect the work itself, and do not protect an idea, a method, or any fact implied or included in the work.
    • Names cannot be copyrighted.
    • Copyrights remain in effect for the life of the creator plus 70 years. After that, the copyright must be renewed.
    • You’ll receive you certificate of registration in 6 - 8 months.