If you write it, you own it. Nobody else is allowed to make a copy of it unless you sell that right or give it away. That’s copyright in a nutshell: the right to copy your work. (That means works are copyrighted, not “copywritten.”)
In the United States, you automatically have a copyright on your own work the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. (That’s the language that the U.S. Copyright Office uses.) You don’t have to register your work with anyone in order to secure a copyright. You don’t have to state on the work itself that it is copyrighted, and you don’t have to use the little © symbol. You don’t even have to publish it. That has been the law since 1976.
Now comes the fine print.
While you don’t have to do any of those things, you can do any or all of them, and they might give you some advantages. If you register your work with the Copyright Office, it will be easier to chase after anyone who violates your copyright. In fact, you have to register first if you ever want to bring a lawsuit against someone for infringing. The earlier you register the work, the easier it is to defend. Even if you never sue anyone, registration puts the facts of your copyright in the public record.
If you put a notice on your work that it is copyrighted, it will be harder for an infringer to play dumb. The standard form is to put “Copyright” or the symbol (or both) along with the year of first publication and the name of the copyright holder. So for this blog post, it would be © 2016 Robert Celaschi.
You can transfer your copyright, either as a gift or for money. It has to be done in writing, and it has to be signed by your or your authorized agent. You can even sell part of your copyright and hold on to other parts.
But what if you are writing something as part of your job? That doesn’t really change anything, but you have to think it through a little bit. By collecting a paycheck in exchange for your writing, even if that’s not the main part of your job, you are selling the right to your work. It’s usually called “work for hire.” In those cases, the employer is officially the author as far as copyright law is concerned.
There are a few things that you can’t copyright. You can’t copyright an idea, for instance. If you’ve worked out the whole manuscript in your head but have never put it down on paper (or in a computer), you are out of luck.
It surprises some people to learn that you can’t copyright a title. That’s how Robert Benchley was able to title one of his books, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that you can’t copyright plain old information that is considered common property, such as a list of the planets or the months of the year.
Copyrights don’t last forever, but they last pretty long. Under current law, a copyright is good for your entire lifetime, plus 70 years after your death.
As I said, that’s how it works in the United States. Other countries have other rules, and there’s no one-stop shop for a blanket international copyright.
That’s the quick tour. If you want to dig deeper, check out the frequently asked questions at the Copyright Office.