Registration isn’t required to get a copyright, but it is useful in some circumstances.
These days, you do not need to register a copyright to own a copyright in your work — copyright protection is automatic. But registration offers benefits in some situations.
Registration is relatively easy, and inexpensive: You can do it at the Copyright Office, for about $35, with an online form. You don’t have to have a lawyer do it, and you probably don’t need to hire a service. At UMass, the Libraries’ Scholarly Communication Office can help you, as can the Tech Transfer Office.
But should you register? That’s a different question.
Registration is required if you are suing, and timely registration is required in order to receive statutory damages — lots of money, in other words. So if you are planning to make commercial use of your work, or if you anticipate being involved in a dispute over your work, it’s probably worth it to register it.
But if you do not anticipate commercializing your work and/or litigate over it, then you may not need a copyright. You can still enforce your rights and use them: You can permit people to reprint or publish your work, and you can do it for free (as with Creative Commons licenses) or for money.
Will registering your copyright prevent or help deal with plagiarism?
Not really. Plagiarism happens when someone makes uncredited use of your work, or actually claims credit themselves. The best way to protect against plagiarism is (1) establish priority and (2) enhance discoverability. In other words, stake a claim to your ideas and expression early, and do so in a way that is easy to document and demonstrate that this is your own original work. That helps both against plagiarism and good faith scooping.
So imagine you post your thesis to your website or to UMass ScholarWorks, the library’s institutional repository. Someone copies it wholesale and submits it to their department as their thesis. Because you have posted it publicly, with a date of publication, it will be easy to prove that this is your work, and that it preceded the other person’s submission. This will work even if they don’t copy the work, but simply use the ideas — you have still established priority of discovery.
Should I let someone else register my copyright?
Suppose you decide you want to register your copyright. Should you pay a copyright service to do it for you?
Probably not. It’s really easy to register a copyright, and you can do it yourself. Just go straight to the Copyright Office website, at http://copyright.gov . It costs $35 to register a single work, but if you have more than one to register, you can do multiple works at a reduced rate. If you want some help or advice, the UMass Libraries’ Scholarly Communication Office can assist, as can the UMass Tech Transfer Office.
What about if you have a paper or a book being published, and the publisher offers to register your copyright for you? Pay careful attention to these offers, and how they relate to any publication agreements you may be asked to sign. It’s easy to register your own copyright, and you can put it in your own name. If a publisher registers it in the publisher’s name, it may make it complicated down the line if you wish to terminate or otherwise act as the copyright owner of that work.