I got a call last week from a writer with a question about copyright registration. This is one of the most common areas I get questions on; people want to know how to protect their work. The writer I talked to didn’t want to have to transmit credit card or other personal data over the Internet, and she was looking for the easiest way to register a manuscript via some other means. I logged onto the U.S. Copyright’s website and found that you have three options for getting your work officially registered. You can upload your manuscript and your payment, all via the Internet; you can complete an online form that you print out (the printed form will contain a bar code that makes it unique to you), attach it to your manuscript, and send it all in with a check via regular mail; or you can contact the Copyright Office and request all forms in hard copy so you don’t have to use the Internet at all.
Remember that your work is protected by copyright law from the moment you write the words, whether you insert the copyright mark © or not, whether you register it or not. The creation of it copyrights it automatically. Official copyright registration is a formal step so that if your rights are violated, you can demonstrate conclusively that the work is yours. In the event you had to prove work was yours, you could also show other supporting evidence such as files and notes (in what would be a civil law suit), but official registration is the gold standard. “Poor man’s copyright,” in which a writer mails himself a sealed copy of his manuscript so that the post mark can verify the date of creation, won’t hold up in court—there’s no way to prove you didn’t mail yourself an empty, unsealed envelope.
Your rights are violated when your work is used without your permission. What’s known as “fair use” is permitted so we may quote authors, but fair use is also limited use. Always give proper attribution when quoting someone. In the case of song lyrics, you’re better off to request permission to use any portion of the lyrics; music rights are more stringent in that regard. Some work is more prone to theft—movie and television scripts, for instance—and the copyright office has a special “pre-registration” process for these types of manuscripts. It’s an expensive process: $100 as opposed to $45 for regular registration.
Copyright image courtesy of http://www.copyrightauthority.com/copyright-symbol/