1. Why is copyright registration important?
Generally, registration of a US created work is a prerequisite to bringing a copyright infringement lawsuit in the United State (see 17 U.S.C. § 411(a)). However, some courts permit plaintiffs to initiate a copyright infringement lawsuit based on the filing of a copyright application.
Moreover, timely registration of your copyright increases your potential recovery, see point 3 below.
2. When should you register your copyright?
As a rule of thumb, you should register your copyright before "publishing" your photographs (see 17 U.S.C. § 101).
For unpublished photos, they should be registered before they are infringed (see 17 U.S.C. § 412). And, for published photos, they should be registered within three months of publication (see 17 U.S.C. § 412).
3. How does timely registration affect your recovery?
If you timely registered your copyright, you have a choice. You can claim either: (a) your actual damages and any additional infringer profits attributable to the infringement and not taken into account in computing the actual damages, or (b) statutory damages of up to $30,000 per infringed work, or $150,000 per willfully infringed work (see 17 U.S.C. § 504(c)(1)-(2)). And, you can claim attorneys fees and costs (see 17 U.S.C. § 505).
If you failed to timely register your copyright, then you can only recover your actual damages and any additional infringer profits attributable to the infringement and not taken into account in computing the actual damages. 17 U.S.C. § 504(b).
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