When I was in the Johns Hopkins masters program for writing, we were told that one doesn’t need to register a copyright for unpublished work because the author automatically holds the copyright for his or her work upon its creation. This is true. But if a question of authorship or rights arises, how doe one prove when and by whom the work was created?
The consensus seemed to be that adding a copyright mark was unnecessary for books since agents and editors for books know copyright exists upon creation, are not in business to appropriate a writer’s work but to represent and publish it, and would consider the copyright mark an indication of the writer being an “amateur” who did not know this.
On the other hand, in a play-writing class, I was warned that one should always put a copyright mark on movie scripts because those on the west coast to whom one sends such work might steal it and claim that they didn’t know anyone had rights because there was no copyright mark.
Whether or not one places the copyright mark and year of creation on the work when sending it out, I believe that, in order to have evidentiary proof of when the work was created, registration with the United States Copyright Office is indispensable. And so, I generally register a copyright for my unpublished work before sharing it too broadly or sending it forth into the world.
(The Copyright Office provides for registration of unpublished as well published works, and I expect it would not be a complicated matter to transfer the copyright as necessary when a work is published.)
The price of registration is $35.00, and one may now register work through the Copyright Office’s website. One fills out the application, makes payment on-line, and then uploads the work. The work may also be submitted by mail.
The tutorials on the website (one for standard registration and one for single registration) are easy to understand and follow. (The only possibly difficult parts are the need temporarily to disable one’s browser’s pop-up blocker and any third-party toolbars. But, for the technologically backwards–like myself–this is still not too difficult. I easily searched for and found information about how to do this on the web. The copyright website also states that its eCo system has been confirmed to work with the Firefox browser and Microsoft Windows Operating System 7, and that use of Safari, Googlechrome or Outlook may potentially “show less than optimal behavior.” However, I have used Safari and had no problems at all.)
When the process is complete (application, payment and uploading of the work), one receives e-mails confirming that the application, payment, and work have been received. The registration is considered to exist from the date these items are received, though one may not receive the copyright certificate for as many as eight months. (The Copyright Office admonishes not to enquire until eight months have passed.) When the copyright registration is meant to be for a published work, the site notes that one does not have to wait for arrival of the certificate before publishing.
Note: The process I’ve noted above applies to books. But the copyright site’s tutorial also addresses the processes for registering copyright for paintings, plays, periodicals, etc.–some of which may be a bit different from what I’ve described here.