Recently, a writer asked about how to prove copyright ownership.
The best way is registration of the copyright. Copyright registration within five years of the first publication creates a legal presumption of ownership and validity. So it makes sense to register early. Plus, you can’t file a copyright infringement complaint in US federal court if you haven’t registered your work with the US Copyright Office.
Besides being the best proof of ownership, copyright registration within three months of publication or before the start date of the infringing act allows you to seek statutory damages which are between $750 and $30,000 per work (i.e., each individual copyrightable work, like each book, photograph, or song). So for every book published that is infringed, you could recover statutory damage for each one. That begins to add up (e.g., 200 books X $750). And damages can be increased up to $150,000 per work if the infringement is willful (intentional). If the infringement is innocent (the infringer did not know they were violating copyright law), the damages can be reduced to a minimum of $200 per work.
See this link for more info on statutory damages.
If copyright registration occurs after the infringement, then you have to prove actual damages. This usually makes a lawsuit economically unfeasible because actual damages for most people tend to be low compared to the expense of litigation.
If you don’t register for copyright, but you still want to prove ownership, you have a harder road, but it can be done. Just remember, these are all subject to validity attacks (like a lot of things in the digital era). More secure ways to prove ownership–publication dates on your book, deposit dates with the copyright office or Library of Congress, or printouts mailed to yourself by registered mail and not opened unless you need to prove copyright ownership. Less secure ways (i.e., easier to discredit) are notes and drafts with dates, computer files with date stamps, emailing the work to yourself and saving it to create a time and date stamp, etc. None of these examples though are substitutes for actual registration. For that, you must file a registration with the Copyright Office. If you need more information on copyright registration, see this article about how to copyright a book which outlines the steps to registration.
Legal Disclaimer: This information is provided for educational purposes only. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation. You can read our full legal disclaimer here.