Online Copyright Registration Services: Writer Beware

In 2014, I wrote a post about Copyright Registration Online, one of many faux and exploitative copyright registration “services” that cater to writers’ anxiety about theft and plagiarism, particularly of unpublished work, by promising to register US copyright or to provide some sort of copyright verification service.

Naturally, there are fees for these services. At the time I wrote the post, Copyright Registration Online was charging $135–which was a ripoff, on two fronts. You can register copyright yourself online at the US Copyright Office for only $45. Just as important: there’s absolutely no need to register copyright for unpublished work.

Some registration services are basically pass-throughs: they do submit registration applications to the US Copyright Office, just at a seriously inflated cost. Others provide their own “registration” documentation or certificates, often based on some sort of timestamp. These are completely worthless, not just because they could easily be faked and are therefore unlikely to stand up in court, but because there is no legal substitute for registration with the US Copyright Office (in the United States, you must previously have registered your copyright in order to file an infringement action). Just like so-called poor man’s copyright, any “registration” received from a source other than the Copyright Office has zero legal validity.

So why am I dredging up old blog posts? Because Copyright Registration Online is still around, and it has seriously upped the disinformation factor.

Now also calling itself Copyright Registry or Copyright Registry Online, it’s got a spiffy new web domain, website, and eagle-and-flag logo. Services are basically the same; prices are a little higher, but not much: “registration” for a single author with a single work will set you back $144.

Copyright Registration Online has also moved beyond the comment spam that brought it to my attention the first time. If you Google “register copyright”, its ad comes up ahead of the link to the US Copyright Office:

This no doubt drives a lot of traffic Copyright Registration Online’s way, with many writers probably never realizing they aren’t dealing with an official branch of the US government, or realizing too late, despite this easily-missable small print on the home page:

Complaints at the BBB–which currently gives the company an F rating–further illustrate this point.

It’s pretty clear that Copyright Registration Online has had plenty of experience with dissatisfied customers–so much so that there’s an entire clause in its Terms and Conditions devoted to credit card chargebacks, with (probably unenforceable) financial penalties threatened against anyone who dares to initiate one:

Note also the final sentence, which ups the scare factor: “Until these fees are paid in full, Copyright Registry Online will have complete ownership and control of users [sic] copyright registration.” It’s unclear what that means, since only a copyright owner can own a registration made in their name. Is the company referring to the registration application? Is it threatening to hold up the registration process or to withhold the eventual certificate from the Copyright Office? Again, not clear, and it’s unlikely it could actually do anything at all. But scary language, especially to an inexperienced author.

How many people read Terms and Conditions, though? So the company includes an even more outlandish threat in its email footers:

Bad author, no can haz chargeback, all your copyright belong to us!

Of course, this is a complete, brazen lie. First of all, this supposed loss of ownership is not so stated in the Terms and Conditions, which refer only (however nonsensically) to the registration.

Second and more important, this is not the way copyright works. You can’t lose ownership of your work unless you explicitly agree to surrender your copyright, and there is nothing in Copyright Registration Online’s application process, or its Terms and Conditions, to effectuate that.

Pure and simple, this is a scare tactic designed to discourage writers from filing disputes with their credit card companies once they realize they’ve been rooked. Not only is it a testament to the sleaziness of Copyright Registration Online–you wouldn’t need to work so hard to head off chargebacks if you didn’t get a ton of them–it may well be illegal.

There are many similar services out there. I haven’t encountered any others that employ such egregiously dishonest tactics. Even so, there are excellent reasons for avoiding ANY service that claims to do or to expedite what the US Copyright Office does–whether because they’ll charge you much more than you need to pay, or will furnish you with documents that have no legal value.

Also, don’t forget: no matter what you may have heard, if your work is unpublished and you’re still at the query stage, there’s no need to register at all. By law, you own copyright from the moment you write down the words. Registration is an extra step that gives you the right to pursue an infringement claim in US court (other countries have no such requirement for filing a claim). But theft and plagiarism are vanishingly unlikely at the query stage. Reputable agents and editors won’t risk their reputations by stealing; disreputable ones aren’t interested in your work, only in your money. Infringement only becomes a danger when your work is exposed to a wide audience: in other words, published.

There’s comprehensive information on copyright–including the many myths associated with it–on the Copyright page of the Writer Beware website.

1 Comment

  1. Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware wrote, “in the United States, you must previously have registered your copyright in order to file an infringement action.”

    Authors/Creatives have legal standing to file a copyright infringement action in federal court with their issued copyright “Certificate of Registration” OR a refusal from the US Copyright Office. See 17 USC § 411(a) – Registration and civil infringement actions:

    “…where the deposit, application, and fee required for registration have been delivered to the Copyright Office in proper form and registration has been REFUSED [emphasis], the applicant is entitled to institute a civil action for infringement if notice thereof, with a copy of the complaint, is served on the Register of Copyrights.”

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