What is a copyright? It's a form of protection provided by U.S. law to anyone who creates "original works of authorship." Essentially, a copyright protects literary, musical, dramatic, artistic and other qualifying creative works. The Copyright Act of 1976 further clarified copyright protection: Now a copyright owner has the exclusive right to reproduce the work; prepare spinoff works based on the copyrighted work; and to sell, perform and/or display the copyrighted work in public.
One of the nice things about copyright is that securing such protection is fairly straightforward. Copyright protection is created the moment your work is fixed in a copy or phonorecord (CD, LP, cassette, disk and the like) for the first time. In other words, once your story is put in writing, your song is transcribed as sheet music or recorded, or your creative work is given some fixed form, your copyright is automatically secured. From that moment on (assuming creation occurred after January 1, 1978), your work has copyright protection for your lifetime, plus 50 years after your death.
It's sometimes confusing as to who exactly is the owner of copyright protection. When just one author is involved, he or she can rightfully claim copyright. If the work was a collaborative effort between several authors, each author becomes a co-owner of the copyright. Co-ownership means each author has the rights to the work--all owners would have to agree to sell their rights for someone to have exclusive ownership of the work. For this reason, it's a good idea to have an agreement drawn up beforehand as to who will own the copyright. The term of copyright in a co-authorship situation is 50 years after the last surviving author's death.
If the work was commissioned or created as part of the creator's job, the employer is considered to be the author. After all, the author was paid for the work with wages. In this case, the term of copyright is calculated differently. If copies or phonorecords of the work are distributed to the public for sale, that first date of sale is called the publication date. The term of copyright protection is calculated as 75 years from the publication date or 100 years from the creation date; whichever is shorter.
Confused? Here's an example. While employed, you write a software manual. Your employer puts the manual on the market for sale two years later--that becomes the publication date. Two years plus 75 years equals 77 years. This is less than 100 years, so the term of copyright is 77 years, based on the publication date. If the employer had put the manual on the market 27 years later, the term would have been 100 years, based on the creation date. But remember, the copyright belongs solely to your employer, not to you, because the work was created as part of your employment.