If you're a writer, you probably have a website. If you have a website, you may recently have been emailed an official-looking WEBSITE COPYRIGHT LICENSING NOTICE from the US Copyright Registry, informing you that your website "has not been protected and is now available for copyright registration."
Reading on, alarmed website owners discover the following (all grammatical and other errors faithfully reproduced):
IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE UNITED STATES COPYRIGHT LAW, TITLE 92, Sec. 106 to 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following: Rights of attribution and integrity: the author shall have the right to claim authorship of that work, and prevent the use of his or her name as the author of any work which he or she did not create.
Be advised: Protecting a website is the responsibility of the owner of the website and must be registered through the United States Patent and Trademark office to legally prevent others from infringing on the owners rights and copying a website. It is the responsibility of the website owner to complete registration to protect their intellectual property and bring suit in federal court for infringement and obtain statutory damages up to $150,000.
Say what? The US Patent and Trademark office? What's that got to do with registering copyright? Also, the US Copyright Law is known as Circular 92, not Title 92, and the "rights and attribution" language quoted above applies to the visual arts, not written text--such as that on a website.
The email concludes, ominously:
You are required to advise the US Copyright Registry of your intent to license this website if registration is administered through the UCR as this is your final notice.
Note: you may disregard this notice. If you disregard this notice or fail to reply: UCR and the United States Patent and Trademark office will NOT be liable for infringement of your website, interruption of business activity or business losses.
To avoid this dreadful fate, all you have to do is call an 800 number and mention the official-looking tracking number provided in the email.
All of the above was enough to get my scam sense tingling. A visit to the Registry's website--which offers misinformation such as "Copyright Registration is required to legally prevent others from copying your website" and touts the use of its seal, which "helps prevent potential infringers from copying your work"--confirmed my hunch, as did a quick bit of Googling. I was curious, however, about costs.
So I called.
The phone menu offers several options, some of which have nothing to do with sales but all of which lead to a salesperson. I dealt with a pleasant young man, who immediately asked for my tracking number. As it happens, I didn't have one, since I'd heard about the Registry from someone else. No problem; all I had to do was provide my URL.
A few minutes on hold, and then he returned to tell me the good news--US Copyright Registry could indeed register copyright on my website! If I signed up today, I'd receive my certificate of registration from the Library of Congress within 6 to 8 weeks.
"Wait a sec," I said. "Library of Congress? Your email said the US Patent and Trademark Office."
"Oh," he said, flustered, "well, you know, it's both of them."
"Both of them? You mean they both issue a certificate?"
"Uh, no, it's just one certificate. But it comes from both offices."
I decided not to torture him further. "So how much will registration cost me?"
"Based on your website's size"--which he had no way of assessing, considering that all he'd done was access my Whois information--"it'll be a total of $350."
"Is that a one-time fee? What if I add new material?"
"Well, then you'll need to re-register. Most of our customers re-register once a year."
"And what would the cost be for that?"
"$350, or maybe a bit more if the website got a lot bigger."
"The same $350? So I don't get a customer discount?"
"Uh, no. We don't do that. So...can I sign you up?"
I told him I needed to mull it over and would call back. Somewhat to my surprise, he didn't try to pressure me with limited time offers or horror stories about infringed websites.
Not once did he ask me if I was the copyright holder, or if I had the right to register copyright for my website--despite an entire section of the US Copyright Registry's website describing the circumstances under which website owners may not be copyright holders. I would love to know if the registration certificate the Registry sends out is bogus--or indeed, if they send any certificate at all. Sadly, I don't have $350 to burn.
There's no way to know how many people will fall for this. Given the general level of ignorance regarding copyright, however, as well as people's entirely unfounded terror of intellectual property theft, I'd guess that the money is rolling in.
For the real scoop on copyright, check out Writer Beware's Copyright page.