Understanding Limit of Claim in Copyright Registration

limit of claim

When you submit an application to register your work, the Copyright Office asks you to state what you authored and also to “limit” your claim by noting elements of the work that are either someone else’s authorship, or even your own prior authorship. While that can be confusing, it’s actually not too hard.

Claiming copyright in your work while excluding (or disclaiming)someone else’s authorship is pretty straightforward. For example, if you wrote a book that includes photos or illustrations that are other people’s works, you don’t need to tell the Copyright Office  who made those works or when they were made, or anything like that.. You would simply disclaim the visual works to inform the Copyright Office that you are not claiming those as part of the book being registered.

This same principle applies when you have created a derivative work,* such as an authorized screenplay based on someone else’s novel or a book sequel in a series you did not originate.. In these examples, you have written new material based on the characters, and perhaps the plot elements, from someone else’s work. Here, you would simply check the “Limit of Claim” boxes to indicate that you are disclaiming literary elements (the prior author’s work) and also claiming your new authorship. If you want to explain any specifics, you can do so in the note to the examiner so they understand more fully.

limit of claim
“Literary Work” example shown.

You are also asked to disclaim your own prior authorship of any elements in a new work being registered.. This is because copyright law considers each work to be distinct, andin each work, only the new authorship is protected. For instance, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back has its own registration, but only for the new creative work that was not already registered in the original The Cat in the Hat.

A related question we hear often is whether any changes to a prior-registered work always requires a new registration. You might make edits to an unpublished manuscript or change the color work on a photograph or add a key change to a musical work that was previously registered with the Copyright Office. In many instances (e.g. minor stylistic edits), a new registration is not necessary. The question depends on the extent to which you have created new material that is potentially vulnerable, on its own, to infringement and should, therefore, be registered. On this subject, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of an attorney. In fact, because different expressive media imply different considerations, this is an excellent question for the legal services provided by your advocacy organization, if you are a member.

Finally, the Copyright Office also asks whether the disclaimed work has a registration number. This is something you are more likely to know about your own work than someone else’s work, but you can search the registration records. The registration number of the disclaimed work is not required, but if supplied, it can help maintain a more accurate record.