Copyrighting is an often misunderstood thing, and I’ve seen a few questions here about it.
It’s actually quite simple.
When you write something, it is copyrighted. End of story.
According to the US government (www.copyright.gov), “No publication or registration, or any other action… is required to secure copyright… Copyright is secured automatically when the work is created.”
Once you make it, you own it and all the rights to it.
This does not solve all of a writer’s copyright problems, however. The fact remains that if someone steals your work you need to PROVE that you wrote it and that the copyright is yours.
Fortunately there are numerous ways to do this.
Publishing the work on Gather.com or other online websites accomplishes this. Gather dates their articles. If yours was written first, you will be the defacto owner of the work.
Another simple way is to have it certified by the Writer’s Guild of America. For about $50 they will archive your work and give you a certificate of authenticity, proving that the work is yours. Should someone later claim to have written it, the WGA will testify in court as to the date you submitted.
You can also send it to the Library of Congress. This process takes about 6 months, and can cost upwards of $200, but your work becomes part of the national archive, and is quite hard to steal at that point.
Finally, there is the old standard – the “poor man’s copyright”. Print out a copy of your work, and mail it to yourself certified mail. When you get the letter, do not open it. Keep it sealed. The certification provides federally approved dating of the material inside, so long as it is only opened before a federal official or officer of a court (such as a lawyer). Just keep it in your files. If your work is stolen, get a lawyer, open it in his presence, and you have established proof of copyright. This is the most commonly used method, and has withstood the test of time.
I find that the concern over stealing work is largely unwarranted. Because proving a copyright is, with a few precautions, so easily done and the penalties for stealing so high (including punitive damages and destroying the plagiarist’s career), very few people ever SERIOUSLY attempt it (people might lift a word or two for an essay or school paper).
Regardless, your work is copyrighted when you write it, and enforcing that copyright is a relatively simple matter.
For more information, visit www.copyright.gov.