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How Much Will It Cost Me to . . .

by Jacqui Lipton

. . . register my copyright or trademark?

. . . hire a lawyer to help me?

As a legal issues columnist for authors, I’m often talking about what the law says and what it means, but I was reminded recently while speaking at a conference on these issues, that sometimes the most pressing questions are even more pragmatic.

I was asked how much it would cost to register a copyright or trademark and whether it’s necessary to incur the additional expenses of securing an attorney to do it for you.

So here’s the lowdown on paying to register your author IP (intellectual property).

  1. In the United States, you can own your copyright or trademark regardless of whether you register it. Registration is a separate step in both cases that is usually a good idea and gives you certain benefits like presumptions of ownership and validity of your rights. However, you technically own copyright in your manuscript as soon as you reduce it to writing (digitally or otherwise) and you own a trademark in your logo or slogan when you use it in commerce to distinguish your products and services from those of others.
  2. Authors should be alert to registering/protecting their copyrights; your intellectual property rights are in the words you write that you can enforce against others who copy your work without permission. Trademarks are less of a problem because authors rarely use trademarks in their day to day work. I’ve written on trademarks previously (here and here). In the book publishing context, it’s usually book series titles and franchises that are trademarked, not individual book titles or authors’ names. (Sometimes characters are trademarked – like Mickey Mouse for Disney – but that’s also a relatively unusual case.)
  3. Registering copyrights is easy and cheap and something you can do yourself without an attorney by following the steps set out on the U.S. Copyright Office’s website. The fee to register a single work by a single author (other than a work for hire) is currently $35. There is plenty of helpful information on the Copyright Office website for how to register either online or through the mail. If you hire a lawyer to help you, the fees will likely run into the hundreds of dollars if not higher, depending on the law firm. So you may want to see how comfortable you are doing it yourself before you resort to a lawyer.
  4. Registering trademarks is more difficult than registering a copyright, costs a lot more, and you’ll probably need an attorney to help you. Trademarks are registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and a basic trademark registration costs between $225 and $400 depending on the circumstances, and that’s not including a lawyer’s fee. That said, there are very few circumstances in which an author needs to register a trademark. You generally can’t trademark a single book title or your name as an author and can only trademark characters in relatively rare circumstances. It’s usually large media corporations or successful franchises that trademark characters when the characters start to operate effectively as logos for the franchise holder: again, like Mickey Mouse for Disney.

The basic lesson is that it’s probably worth authors knowing a little something about copyright registration and worth figuring out how to register your copyright work yourself. It’s relatively straightforward and affordable and you don’t need a lawyer in most cases. However, if you find yourself in trademark territory, you may want to seek legal advice before attempting to navigate the USPTO system.

And please note: This column isn’t intended as legal advice, but simply as a guide to copyright and trademark registration systems. I’ve written about what copyright and trademark law entails elsewhere and have included links to useful sources above. Also, this column only pertains to American registration systems. Most other countries don’t have copyright registration systems at all and typically their trademark registration systems operate differently to the American version. If you want more information on any of these issues, feel free to drop me a line or post a comment below.

A bit about the columnist:

Jacqui Lipton is a law professor and the director of Authography LLC, a company dedicated to helping authors and artists with legal and business issues. She writes fiction and law books, and holds an MFA in fiction writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts as well as a Ph.D. in law from Cambridge University. She loves reading and writing speculative fiction and is the mother of three children and (apparently) three cats. Visit author page