A copyright is 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: A copyright owner now has the exclusive right to reproduce the work; prepare spin-off works based on the copyrighted work; and to sell, perform and/or display the copyrighted work in public.
One of the nice things about copyrights is that securing such protection is fairly straightforward. Copyright protection is created the moment your work is fixed in a "tangible form of expression" (paper copy, CD, disk, videotaped performance, 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 exactly who is the owner of a work's 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 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. (For a larger list of copyright terms, visit this list provided by Cornell University.)
Works on which you're able to obtain a copyright fall into eight categories: literary works; musical works; dramatic works; pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; sound recordings; pantomimes and choreographic works; audiovisual works; and architectural works. These categories are interpreted very broadly. For example, software may be registered as a literary work; maps as pictorial, graphic and sculptural works; and a children's slide as an architectural work.
On the flip side, several categories of material are not eligible for federal copyright protection. Works that have not been fixed as a copy aren't eligible. Titles, names, short phrases and slogans aren't eligible for copyright either because they're covered under trademark protection. Mere listings, such as ingredients or phone numbers, are also ineligible. Works that are nothing more than common property and contain no original authorship--such as standard calendars or rulers--can't be protected by copyright. And works by the U.S. government aren't eligible for copyright protection because they were paid for by taxpayers and thus are free for anyone's use.
When you see the letter "C" enclosed in a circle, you're being informed the work is declaring copyright privileges. This symbol used to be required under U.S. law but isn't required today. Works created before March 1, 1989, when the requirement was lifted, must continue to display the notice in the proper format--for example: ©1999 John Doe. Regardless, it's generally considered a good idea to display the notice because it informs the public that the work is protected by copyright. If the work is infringed on and the copyright mark appears on the work, no weight will be given to a defendant's argument that infringement was an innocent mistake.
Registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office isn't a requirement for copyright protection. However, copyright laws provide several advantages to those copyright owners who take the time to register. A formal registration establishes a public record of your copyright claim. Should someone infringe on your copyright, in order to file an infringement lawsuit, your work must first be registered. With a registered copyright, you're entitled to claim not only actual damages, but statutory damages and attorneys' fees as well. And registration will allow you to record your ownership with the U.S. Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies. Registration of works may be done at any time within the life of the copyright.