Sunday Mailbag

July 8th, 2007 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: What is the best way to get your work registered or how does one get a copyright? I’m sure a lot of work can be misused by someone when your cartoons are on the web. And what is the best method to put a water mark on your cartoons?

A: I’ve posted some news about the Orphan Works legislation that some politicians are trying to push through that would seriously undermine the 30 year old copyright laws that the creators of artistic works currently enjoy, so visit a few of those posts for more info on that. Registering your work may become mandatory if the Orphan Works law is passed.

Under current laws artwork is automatically protected by copyright the moment it is created. The creator of the work owns all copyrights unless and until they specifically give or sell it to someone else. It is not necessary to register your artwork with the U.S. Copyright office to gain copyright protection. However registering does have it’s benefits. It’s generally considered crucial to have a registered copyright on a piece of art before an infringement suit can be brought into court, especially if said suit is demanding monetary damages. You might be able to sue and get an infringer to cease and desist using an unregistered infringed work, but in order to get them to cough up dough a copyright registration is important.

Registering your artwork is easy. First you fill out an application for registration of copyrighted visual works (Form VA). You send that along with a “deposit” of materials to be copyrighted. This just means copies of the image(s) to be copyrighted. If unpublished, send one complete copy or identifying material for each piece of artwork. There are a lot of rules for the deposit detailed in Circular 40a. Finally, you send in a registration payment (currently $45.00, but the government loves to increase fees, so…). That’s it. Your copyright registration takes effect the day your application arrives at the copyright office, assuming everything is in acceptable form. You will not get notified that they have received it, but you will eventually get a certificate of registration saying the registration is complete, or a letter saying why it was rejected (usually because of improperly filled out applications or deposits).

You can register large groups of unpublished work at once (a “collection”), under a single registration application AND FEE, if the following apply:

  1. The works in the collection are assembled in an orderly form- The best way to do this is by year. All the artwork for 2006, for example.
  2. The collected works are identified by a single title- i.e. “Bobo’s artwork, 2006”.
  3. One copyright claimant (or group of claimants) for the entire collection- You can’t have different artwork in there claimed by different people.
  4. All the artwork in the collection is by the same artist or co-artists

The benefit is one application, one fee. Published works have different rules. See the U.S. Copyright Website for more details. Save that link for any bouts of insomnia, because reading it will put you to sleep every time.

As for watermarks, there are programs and services that do that for you. Digimarc is one of the best known, and it works right in PhotoShop (but not CS3 yet).

Thanks to Vivek Thakkar for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

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