This article is from the Copyright Law FAQ, by Terry Carroll with numerous contributions by others.
In order to sue for infringement, with some exceptions, your work must be
registered with the Copyright Office. However, you may register after
the infringement occurs, as long as it's before filing your lawsuit.
The advantage to registering prior to infringement is that it allows you
some additional remedies that aren't available if you registered after
infringement: namely, statutory damages and attorney's fees. 17 U.S.C.
"Statutory damages" are damages specified in the statute, as opposed to
"actual damages," which are damages that you can demonstrate in court
that you actually suffered. If you registered your work prior to
infringement, you can skip showing any actual damage, and just elect to
receive statutory damages. 17 U.S.C. 504(a).
Statutory damages for copyright infringement are $500 - $20,000, as
determined by the judge. If the infringer proves that he or she was not
aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted
infringement, the court may lower damages to as low as $200 per
infringement. On the other hand, if the plaintiff proves that the
defendant's infringement was "committed willfully," the judge may award
damages to as high as $100,000 per infringement. 17 U.S.C. 504(c).
In deciding whether to register your work, you must weigh the probability
of an infringement action (and the advantages of attorney's fees and
statutory damages in such an action) against the $20 cost of
CAVEAT: On February 16, 1993, the Copyright Reform Act of 1993 was
introduced in both houses of the 103nd Congress (H.R. 897 in the House of
Representatives and S.373 in the Senate). If the bill passes, much of
the information in this entry will be rendered incorrect. Specifically,
the bill would, among other things, remove the requirement for
registration prior to bringing suit, and would remove the restrictions on
statutory damages that are described above.