A reader's post on architectmagazine.com raises the question of whether the author of a document or architectural design can register the work merely by affixing the copyright (©) symbol on the title block of the document, along with the year of completion. The short answer is no. Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office, while not mandatory for copyright protection, nevertheless requires a formal application process. And registration, like certain memberships, has its privileges.
Architectural works suitable for copyright protection include architectural plans or drawings. In the case of finished plans or drawings, the architect has the option to use the copyright symbol without first registering the work with the Copyright Office (www.copyright.gov). The copyright symbol lets the public know the architect is claiming ownership and exclusive rights. Without such notice, the architect is still entitled to copyright protection, but using the copyright symbol is simply the best way to discourage potential infringers and remove any doubt that the work is protected by copyright.
Why register? In weighing the choice between registering a work or not, the scales tip clearly in favor of registration. A major benefit of registration is that it validates the owner's claim to copyright—i.e., there is no question that you own the copyright. Registration also allows the copyright owner to sue for infringement in federal court and recover actual damages (usually, lost profits) as well as the infringer's profits (if they exceed lost profits); if actual damages are difficult to prove, the copyright owner can sue for statutory damages.
Mandated by federal law, statutory damages range from $200 to $150,000, depending on whether the infringer was unaware of the owner's copyright and copied the work innocently or knowingly copied the work. Moreover, the copyright owner may choose to receive statutory damages instead of actual damages at any time before the court renders a final judgment. Finally, copyright law allows registered copyright owners to recover their attorney's fees.
If you don't … By forgoing registration, a copyright owner cannot sue for infringement in federal court or seek statutory damages. In many cases, the owner of an unregistered work is limited to state law remedies, which can include a claim for actual damages, a court order to enjoin (or stop) the offensive conduct, or seizure of the copyist's ill-gotten gains.
While these remedies might seem attractive, the unregistered copyright owner must prove that not only is he entitled to them, but that he is the rightful owner of the unregistered work. In other words, should a lawsuit arise, the owner of an unregistered copyright does not enjoy the presumption of validity that the owner of a registered work receives. In addition, it is much more difficult for owners of unregistered works to recover attorney's fees.
The bottom line. The benefits of registration typically far exceed the cost. Currently, the Copyright Office's registration fee is $45. The nominal expense should compel most architects to register their original works to protect their creative efforts and reputations from unlawful copying. For information and advice pertinent to your particular situation, you should consult an attorney.
Jeffrey C. Brown is an intellectual property attorney at the law firm of Jeffrey C. Brown & Associates in Minneapolis.