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Intellectual Property: Copyright and Blogging

Intellectual Property: Copyright and Blogging

Copyright Easy Button
With all the recent brouhaha over intellectual property rights on the web here in the United States, I thought this would be an auspicious time to buckle down and finish this post, which I have been working on since Tales of the Cocktail 2011. It is a followup to my post on Eben Freeman’s session on IP issues in the cocktail industry. One of his panelists, Sheila Fox Morrison, took some time to add some thoughts on how cocktail writers can protect their work was well.

The question I want to address is whether it is useful and worthwhile to copyright your blog (on whatever subject matter). And assuming it is, how does one do so? This may get long, so my I suggest mixing up my delicious, original, intellectual property-themed cocktail, The Infringement™, before you read?

To begin with, your blog is already copyright protected. Each and every post you put up is protected by US Law (and the law of every nation that is a signatory of the Berne Convention) the moment you type it, before you even hit “Publish“. In fact, the protection of patents and copyrights is one of the bedrock, indeed one of the few constitutionally enumerated functions of the Federal government.

So that’s the whole post then!
You can just sit back and count on the awesome power of Uncle Sam to protect your work.

Um, no. Well, yes. But, no.

With automatic protection, your burden of proof that you’ve been infringed is considerable. It can be particularly difficult, even in this age of the Google Wayback Machine, to prove you wrote something first. Further, your ability to extract enough damages to make defending your property worthwhile can be problematic, as only actual damages can be awarded. And even if you aren’t looking to get compensation for someone using your work, there is no easy mechanism out there to just make them stop if they are insistent about appropriating your content.

An excellent way to address these issues is to register your copyright with the U. S. Copyright Office. With registration of your work, the government is essentially testifying that your ownership of the material is valid and true. Further, if someone scrapes your blog and you have a previously registered copyright, the law provides statutory (i.e. significant minimum) damages, as well as allowing recovery of attorney’s fees. In other words, if a scraper takes your registered content you have the means to ruin his day. Note, you do not need to register your copyright to file a DMCA takedown notice, but if the infringer contests the takedown, a registered copyright will make your case a lot stronger.

So, why wouldn’t everyone register their blog? It costs time and money to do so. Assuming you register your blog online, the cost for each registration is “only” $35, which may or may not be significant to you. The more undeniable expense is time. Filling out the required forms, and archiving and formatting your blog for filing with the copyright office adds up to several hours (with generous coffee breaks), especially the first time. Therefore, it may not be worthwhile for you to register your 12 post blog about little Jared’s adventures in PeeWee soccer. But if you are a semi-serious blogger, and have ever had the sensation of discovering your words or pictures gracing some ad-laden webpage that appears ahead of yours in Google searches, consider copyright registration to be a superior form of blood-pressure medication.

You said, “the first time”.
Once I register my blog, isn’t it copyrighted for decades?

Yes it is, but the only content that is registered is that which you included with your submission. So assuming you keep blogging away, your new content will not be so protected. So you will have to register your new content regularly. How often is up to you, but the minimum interval would be three months, and the maximum, five years. Your registration is only direct evidence in court if you made your application within five years of “publication”. And as long as you register within three months of either writing or the infringing act, you will be eligible for statutory relief.

Assuming you still think your work is worth this much effort to protect, let’s go through how you register your blog for copyright protection. While I have been through the process, it is important to remember that I am no lawyer, and certainly no expert, but I have been there, I have done that, and I do have the t-shirt Certificate of Registration.

Before you begin your application to the copyright office, you will need to prepare a copy of your blog as of the date of your application. It will need to be in a format that the office will accept, such as PDFs, Word files, rich text format (.rtf), among several others. I will concentrate on PDF format, because it is so universal, handles bloggy elements like pictures and formatting well, and because I know a good way to produce one. You can also print out your blog in hard copy and mail it in. When registering copyright on most things, the copyright office requires hard-copy only. But for things like blogs and other works published and viewed primarily on screen, we can do things the easy way.

You could just print each page of your blog as a PDF, but for an established blog like this one, almost five years old and boasting more than 800 (long-winded) posts, this process would be laborious. I suggest using an excellent web service called BlogBooker:

BlogBooker will provide you with a PDF of your entire blog from any of three big blogging engines, Blogger, LiveJournal, and of course, WordPress. The service is free, which is awesome, but you should make a donation when you use it… because the whole purpose of this exercise is to ensure fair compensation when someone’s work is used by someone else.

For a WordPress blog like The Pegu Blog, you go to your Dashboard, and choose Tools -> Export. This tool will produce an XML file of your entire blog; posts, pages, comments, etc. But an XML document is not acceptable for the copyright office. Also, this file will include none of your photos, theme, or other media.
Once your export file is downloaded, click on the PDF button at BlogBooker. You will upload your XML file and enter your blog URL so BlogBooker will know where to find all your pictures, etc. Select each feature you wish to include, and set the time range of your blog. Click the Create Your BlogBook and wait… a while. For a large blog like this one, it took a chunk of time. But eventually, you will receive a PDF of your entire blog.

The resulting PDF will not look quite as pretty as your blog.
For instance, in the BlogBooker PDF of The Pegu Blog, you will never see my little face like you do here when I butt in, only my deathless prose.

You are now ready to register your copyright.

Go to Copyright.gov and click on the eCO Login link. Create an account. Then click on Register a New Claim. The application process is many pages long. Most pages are ridiculously simple, while others require some not-obvious decisions. I’ll take note of a few here to help you through. There is also a fairly good online PDF tutorial that steps you through an example registration that covers most, but not all things you need to know.

Type of Work
Choose a literary work. Even is you are a photoblogger, I’m guessing that your work will more easily fit into the Literary Work cubbyhole than Work of the Visual Arts. You may also be tempted to register your blog as if it were a magazine or other serial publication, but functionally, it is not.
Publication/Completion
You should consider your work as published, assuming you make it public and want people to read it, that is.. Also, when first registering your blog, choose the date of your latest post as your Date of First Publication, and that year as your Year of Completion.
Authors
List the blog-owner as the primary author, but you may add as many co-bloggers as you have as authors as well.
You create an entry for each author you list, in which you will detail which elements each author worked on. I’m chief cook and bottle washer here, so I credit myself with text, editing, photographs, artwork, and compilation (this is the work of gathering related materials, links, etc. and combining them in a new form. In most cases, if you are blogging, you are compiling).
Claimants
As the author, you are the default claimant. If your blog is the property of a business, or you have sold or are selling it to someone else, they may be the claimant.
Limitation of Claim
This one is complex. On your first registration, you probably have used photos or other material from other websites that are either public domain or covered under fair use. (If you have stuff yourself that infringes, may I strongly suggest that you remove it before archiving and submitting your blog?) Assuming you have such permitted material, check the appropriate boxes under material excluded. You can use the Other box to describe that there are various photos, quotes, etc. that identify themselves as such. Under New Material Included, check the boxes that apply to your work. I’ll talk about what you do here for subsequent registrations below.

A nice thing about this laborious process is that you can save your application at any point before submission and come back to it later. Once you have completed your application, you can go to the payment step. As I said, it is $35 per registration, and you can pay via credit/debit card, or direct bank transfer. Sorry, no PayPal, web generation!

The last thing you will do, once you have completed the application and payment, is to provide your copy of your material. To do so, you simply browse to find the file on your hard disk, and give it a name for reference. If you printed out your blog, you can mail it in, and bask in the thanks of America’s tree farmers. The copyright.gov site provides a form you can fill out online to include with a snail-mail submission.

Now you wait several months, in all likelihood.

I kid because I love.
It does take a while to get your certificate back, but the effective date of your copyright registration will be your date of submission, even if it takes three months to process, as my submission did. You can apply for expedited handling if, for example, you already are involved with lawyers, but that costs nearly eight hundred dollars for the same registration, only in time to say, “Exhibit A, your honor!”

That’s it. Once you complete your application, your work is done, and you are as protected as you may be. Aside from opening the envelope when it eventually arrives, and filing the certificate you will hopefully never need, you can kick back and glare happily at the world of scrapers at large…

…until you have written enough more to feel willing to go through the process again!


“Hey! Don’t register your blog with the copyright office angry!”
But you might want to do it at least every Groundhog Day….

Once you’ve done it, doing it again will be easier. You prepare your blog for export and submission as before, log in to copyright.gov with your existing account, and register your blog again. For Year of Completion and Date of First Publication, again use the date of the most recent post included in your archive.
The only serious change from the first time you did will be on the Limitation of Claim page of the application. This time, you will provide the registration number you got from the copyright office in the Previous Registration field. If this is not your first revision registration, include the last two registration numbers. On limitation of claim, make the same disclaimers regarding quotes and fair use illustrations of whatever kind, and add that all material up to your last registration date is under prior registration. When your form is complete, pay again and upload your new PDF archive of your blog.

Rinse and repeat this process as often as you like and can afford, but no more often than every three months. The copyright.gov site allows you to save a template of your application which will make it much faster for subsequent registrations.

As you can see, there are strong protections in place for creators who are willing to do the most rudimentary work and adapt reasonably to modern market and technological forces. Do your part to protect your intellectual property within the system we currently have. And if I may ask, educate yourself on the current efforts, with legislation like SOPA and PIPA, to grossly expand copyright enforcement to dangerous extents, and then if you agree with me, call your Representatives and Senators and express your opinion.

As a final word, here are three more posts from others who helped me through this process the first time, and who discuss one aspect or another in more depth:
Should you register your blog with the US copyright office?
Quick and dirty guide to copyrighting your content
Copyright sample forms and strategies for registering your online content


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