How to copyright your work and protect your work from theft

You can protect any-original literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic work that you compose from being used without your permission by obtaining a copyright. A copyright is the exclusive right you receive from the federal government to publish, copy, reprint, sell, or distribute your work. It is good from the moment you create your work until 50 years after your death. If, however, someone hires you to do work, you create a “work for hire” and the employer owns the copyright, unless you have agreed otherwise.

The work must be original. Merely reprinting general information, such as the metric table, work in the public domain (freely available to anyone to use), or principles or theories, does not entitle you to a copyright. Nor does copying someone else’s work.

To be eligible for copyright protection, your work must be set down in some permanent, physical form, such as a book, film, sound recording, or videotape. Once you set your work down, you have copyright protection. You needn’t publicly distribute or sell the work, but if you do, you must include a copyright notice to protect your rights.

For most works, your notice must contain the word “Copyright” or its abbreviation “Copr.” or the symbol (or ° for sound recordings); the year the work was first published; and the name of the copyright owner-you. This information must appear where it can be easily seen- for example, on either the title or following page of a writing or on the label of a record-to let everyone know that they must get your permission to copy or sell your work. In exchange for your permission, you can receive a fee, called a royalty, each time your work is used.

You don’t have to register a copyright, but you may do so for a small fee, and it’s the best way to protect your rights. To get an application form or more information, call the Copyright Office hotline, (202) 287-9100, or write Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20559.