I recently registered “Null(Void)” with the copyright office. This simply means that it is on official, federal record that I own my work, in the case of copyright infringement or other unsavory things that could turn litigious.
Full disclaimer: I used to work in the Library of Congress, which houses the Copyright Division. (The only division in the Library of Congress I never successfully procured office snackies from. They protected their Twix and Dum-Dum pops like Fort Knox.) I worked in the Acquisitions Department, namely the Catalog-In-Print (CIP) Division. A friend of mine works in the Copyright Division. All this means is that I will literally drift to sleep if someone tries to explain the basics of CIP and Copyright to me.
Here’s the kit and kaboodle: Your creative works are yours the second you make it. Automatic copyright, woo. All copyright registration does is ensure the right to defend this fact in court, where you will need a registration of some sort to get to the bottom of “Who owns what – and who pays who”. No registration certificate, no case.
This means you don’t need to register unpublished works. You totally can! But if it is not going to see the light of day outside your bedstand, then it is a pointless exercise because you already own and have automatic copyright of your work. If you are about to publish your work within a year or so (as in, book is done, edits are done, cover art is some degree of finalized, etc etc), then, yes, you definitely should register your work because it will be out in the public sphere. No, it may not hit like Children of Blood and Bone but that does not halt the possibility of infringement or things of that matter. And if infringement does happen, you can actually do something about it.
For works made and registered in the US, it is $35 (at time of posting) for a single work. Upload electronically, it takes about three or so months to get your certificate. By mail, ten or so months. If you want to speed up the whole process because you’re already embroiled in some legal dispute, slap on an extra $800. The fine is steep because the Copyright office is already swamped (CIP always processed books before Copyright gets them, they are swamped) and to work on your claim, this means someone has to drop what they are doing and work on that. File timely (i.e., before crap hits the fan) and avoid the near-stack fee.
By the by … the Poor Man Copyright doesn’t work. The process of mailing the work to yourself and keeping it sealed does nothing to protect your legal rights in the matter. Because the courts are going to go by the Copyright office files. If there is nothing in the file, there is nothing for them to go on. Besides, what if you move? What if you change your name somehow? There are so many ways that can go south. What if it gets lost in the mail? How would courts know it is yours if it isn’t signed or something? Again, an official registration clears all that up and gives you some sort of leg to stand on. In the courts where you can file suit without the registration, not having the registration puts all the baggage (burden of proof) on you to prove that you did indeed make the original document. Might be some degree of easy if you write and date every little thing and are good at scraping up your metadata from the files the digital versions sit on but that’s a big might. If you are the super planner type, this could go well (maaaaaaaaaaaybe) because you can break down every little thing that exists and happens in your book. But again, the burden is on you. With an official registration, the burden is on the person you are accusing of infringement. As in, they have to prove that they did not infringe/steal and that it is actually their work, not yours.
It is astonishing how many places are out there to register your copyright for you – all at exorbitant prices. It’s like paying someone to make you your facebook account, something you can do for free. Just do it yourself. The form is easy, the form is $35, just do it yourself. Don’t waste your money on a person who wants to dupe the stupid for extra cash. Anyone who offers that to you is practically a scammer.