Most people simply assume that you automatically hold the copyright to your intellectual property (art, music, poetry, prose, etc.). In general, those people are correct. But when you drill down to the nitty gritty, it’s not that simple. For more detailed and accurate information, check out the official Copyright.gov website. For those who simply want a quick break-down, keep reading right here:
Final, complete version
You automatically hold a copyright as soon as your work reaches the final, completed stage. That means your novel, for example, is finished, edited, and formatted into an actual book, whether digital, print, or audio, and no further changes will be made to the content. Once that happens, whether it’s published or not, it is your work. Until that happens, it’s still a work in progress and protections on it may be limited.
It used to be said that you don’t need to register for a copyright certificate; it’s enough to send the work to yourself via certified mail (or these days, email) because that is date- and time-stamped showing proof you had the work completed at that time. This, it turns out, is not admissible as evidence in a copyright dispute. Or, if it is, it doesn’t hold as much weight as an actual, official copyright certificate. Why? Because if at any point you sent your work to someone else, what’s to stop them from doing the same thing? Then you have two people claiming the same copyrights with the same evidence, and no way to prove which one is right. This is also a lesson in caution: don’t send your unpublished, unprotected work to anyone you don’t know and trust implicitly.
Copyright laws are not recognized/enforced everywhere equally
Not all countries recognize each other’s intellectual property rights. Which means, if your book is pirated and stored on a server in a country that does not recognize U.S. Copyrights, DMCA takedown notices won’t help you a whole lot. The Copyright website has more information about which countries cooperate in intellectual rights protection and which don’t. Just something to keep in mind…
The best and most effective way to win a lawsuit against someone who stole your work is to have it already be registered under your name with the U.S. Copyright Office. This does not happen automatically, so it’ll be up to you to register your own work, and you’ll probably want to do it before publication or soon thereafter. The longer you wait, the higher the risk of it getting stolen.
On 3.5.19, the U.S. Supreme Court held that bringing a suit for copyright infringement requires that the infringed work actually be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, and that a mere application for registration will not suffice. Read more here.
How to register
You can register online through the Copyright website linked above. You’ll go through certain steps, enter pertinent information, then pay the registration fee, which is cheaper online than it is if you send in a paper application. If your book is digital only, you can then upload your PDF file and you’re done. If, however, your book is published in print, you will need to send two physical copies to the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, DC. Always check to make sure you are using the correct form.
How long it takes
It can take several months to receive your certificate in the mail. The processing times vary and will be spelled out on the website. If there is a problem with your application, it may delay the process. You will be notified via whatever method you gave them to let you know some items require your attention. If you need to file changes, you may be charged an additional fee.
How long the protection lasts
I consider this important enough to quote directly: “The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.” (Source: Copyright.gov)