First of all – just wanted to give you all a HUGE thank you for all the love, support and orders (holy moly!) you sent me in response to my “Super Duper Clearance Sale” that I held last week. The response was amazing and I can’t tell you how much it made my heart swell to get all of your kind messages. You all are the best tribe of followers a gal could ask for.
Okay, now down to business. And I do mean business. Boy oh boy. If you have been following along on my artistic journey you know that this year I decided to get serious and go after my art business dreams completely wholeheartedly. My BIG big dreams are to license my artwork for use on ecologically-responsible products and children’s book illustrations. As I work toward these dreams, I’ve been getting all my biz stuff in order. And forcing myself to do all the “scary” business-y things that I have been avoiding for years. So as much as I have resisted, I finally had to do it….I had to copyright my art.
Ugh. Just the thought of figuring out the logistics of it all gave me knots in my stomach. I mean, I had years and years of artwork that I had never copyrighted. But I am committed to doing it right (or as right as I can) from this point forward, so I made myself a coffee, set aside a couple hours and headed over to www.copyright.gov. <<Menacing music here>>
**Full disclaimer: I am not a copyright expert, legal counsel or affiliate of the U.S. Copyright office. This article is written for informational purposes only, to recount my experience and hopefully help you avoid making the same mistakes I made. This post is not to be used as a replacement for professional advise on copyright filing. Also this information is about copyright filing in the US. Rules vary from country to country.**
I did a little research and *mostly* followed some great advice provided by Maria Brophy in her post on copyright filing. (There were a few key details that I misunderstood, which I will get to in a minute). Her post was of particular interest to be because I wanted to file multiple images at once – collections – so that I could save myself some cash (a copyright registration now costs $55) and simplify the process of getting all of my past art copyrighted. However, I let myself get a little overly excited about this process and missed some key details. So I want to share the steps I took and highlight the pitfalls I hit along the way so that you can learn from my mistakes. So here’s the scoop…
First step was to register with the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) website. (Simple. Okay, I got this.) Once I had a username and password, I went to work stepping myself through eCO’s online application. (Less simple., but doable.) Let me start by saying that although it is daunting, they pretty much step you through the process and have LOADS of information on their website including a pretty handy FAQ section. I’d suggest reading through that page before you get started. It will save you some time and head scratching. The trick is knowing which path to take. And if you are hoping to file multiple images at once, like me, you need to be able to answer a couple questions:
1. Is the artwork published or unpublished? This is sort of confusing, but after having many a conversation with the very friendly Copyright Office staff I’ve come to understand that they interpret the word “published” to mean that the artwork has been reproduced onto another product (this includes prints, cards, t-shirts, etc.) with then intent to commercialize it AND at least one of those reproductions sold. If it was not sold or never offered for sale, then the art is “unpublished”.
This is a really important distinction to make, because published work (like most of my past work) can ONLY be registered in a group under one copyright registration if that group was: a) created in the same year AND b) part of a collection – or what they refer to as a “published unit” – which brings me to the second question…
2. Are these images part of a collection? Again – after some schooling by the helpful Copyright Office staff, I learned that “published unit” means two things: a) all of the artwork in the collection was first ever published on the same date, AND b) the set of works are forever a unit (always marketed together as a whole). Examples of published units are a set of art on a deck of playing cards; or a diptych or triptych; or a packaged set of greeting cards; or a sleeve of peel-off, adhesive labels of clip art. You get the idea – merely making the art available for sale on the same date might make them first-published on the same date but not necessarily a “unit” for the purposes of this registration option.
Lesson #1: Because I had so many published pieces to copyright, I was hoping to file them all as collections based on the year they were created, and (mistakenly) believed that I met the criteria to do so. I had separated my “collections” by year and all the art was first made available at the same time – the annual SE Area ARTWalk – each year. However, I failed to understand the second part of that “published unit” definition – that the art in that collection has to forever remain a collection. This was not the case in my situation. If the published works all have the same date of first-publication, but still are not a unit, then the registration option is to file each separate image on a separate application and fee. There is no applicable “group” or “collection” option if several published arts (like mine) are not a “unit.” Bummer. This proves to be a VERY expensive option if you have lots of published images to copyright.
Depending on how you answer these questions, you are walked through questions one at a time – mostly pertaining to the type of work you are copyrighting, who created it, when it was created and who has the authority to register this work. If it’s just art that you created and you know when you did it, it’s pretty simple really. (Again, I think I read the FAQs maybe 10 times through the first application I put together.)
When you are done, you verify your work and then have the opportunity to upload your artwork. Since I was trying to file collections of art, I developed index sheets like the one below showing all the images included in that collection. with the collection title at the top and the title of each piece under that image (just like Maria outlines in her post – Thanks Maria!).
I uploaded the images, made my payment and hit “complete” and I was done. Then came….
the BIG WAIT.
As you would imagine, the U.S. Copyright Office is extremely busy and it can take many many months – even up to a year – to receive your registration once you submit your application. So after six months of waiting to hear back on my applications, I finally called the Copyright Office and inquired on the status. This triggered a review, followed by a long schooling for me about all of the information listed here. Unfortunately, I had filed incorrectly. After some pouting, “what-ifing” and coming up with the worst case scenario, I was finally coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t afford to register all of my work separately and would have to chose which pieces to copyright and just accept loss on the others. Then suddenly… <insert heroic music here> HUMAN KINDNESS CAME TO THE RESCUE!! (Yay!!!)
The kind staff that I was working with at the Copyright Office actually worked with me to correct my mistakes. And, I got to talk with some very knowledgeable folks there who took the time (and lots of it) to explain the ins and outs of the process, answered my questions and gave me some tips on how to copyright my art from here on out. Which brings me to…
Lesson #2: File for a copyright BEFORE publishing your work. You can file a copyright for multiple images on one application IF all of the images in that group are unpublished. It doesn’t even matter if some of them were created in a different year. Currently, there is no limit to the number of unpublished works that may be combined onto one form and fee. *Tip: If you are going to have an application with LOTS of images, they suggested including a contents sheet as your first upload. This can be in the form of a simple table that lists the title of the work and year it was created.
Lesson #3: Your copyright is made effective the date that you file your application, not the date that you actually receive the registration. So if you want to copyright a bunch of art that you have been working on in preparation for a big show or signing a contract with a licensing deal or whatever way you are planning to “publish” it, go online to the eCO and submit an application for all that art before you publish it. It can even be as last minute as the morning of the show – just do it before you publish it and you’re covered.
Lesson #4: You do not have to re-register for a copyright once you have published your work. If the artwork is registered before publication, then you’re covered. That’s it.
So that’s how I came to have five copyrights and a new appreciation for what good can come when you face your fears. And this brings me to my last lesson…
Lesson #5: Pay attention to how your fears taint your actions and attitude. I got a big dose of “don’t judge a book by its cover” in this experience. I was letting my fear of the process hold me back from something I needed to do to protect my art. And when things appeared to be headed south with the process, I slipped into prophesying how things would turn out (assuming the worst, of course). In the end, I accomplished my goal of copyrighting my work, demystified the process and learned a ton along the way. And hopefully my experience can help others out there take this step as well.
So if you’re still putting it off like I was, I’m here to tell you – just go do it! It’s worth it and it’s another way to show yourself and others that you take your art and creative business seriously. If I can do it, you can too. I’d love it if you would share your copyright experiences below in the comments. We can all learn from each other. Thanks!
(Little aside – I have worked in and with government offices for over 10 years and I’m here to tell you, people in those offices tend to get beat down by the bureaucracy of it all. Many get grumpy and unfriendly because they have very little control over how things work. They often seem unhelpful because they have no power to provide help. I assume the U.S. Copyright office has this bureaucracy too. Yet somehow nearly EVERYONE I worked with through this process (which ended up taking about a month and a half to resolve) was super friendly and kind. They listened and really tried to help. They were patient with my ignorance and took the time to explain things to me. The first couple times I got off the phone I just sort of sat there stunned with such a nice experience I just had after having braced myself for the “fight”. It was refreshing and really amazing actually. So now I want to know – what’s going on in there? Are they getting free smoothies at lunch or extra break time or massages once a week? Seriously. I want to know, Copyright Office. Your staff are ridiculously helpful and kind. Thanks!)