Protecting Your Interests
Protecting yourself from infringement is only one half of copyright; you'll also want to protect your work, too. The following section provides information on protecting your own work from infringement.
Earlier in history, in order for a claim for copyright to be supported, the work must have carried a copyright notice. Now, a notice of copyright is not required — a work is still protected by copyright even if it doesn't have a copyright notice appearing on it, but it is still a good idea to include it. Some writers argue that because copyright exists once a work is saved to a reproducible medium, such copyright is always implied. However, one of the defenses to an accusation of copyright infringement is lack of knowledge that copyright existed in the work, and that defense is not applicable if the work bears a copyright notice. Therefore, including such a notice provides the copyright owner with his or her best copyright protection.
The copyright symbol © has a special legal meaning. People sometimes use a small c surrounded by parenthesis, as in (c), but this does not have the same legal meaning. The only acceptable alternative to the © symbol is spelling the word “copyright” out in full. Just remember this handy little copyright notice phrase: If in doubt, spell it out.
Although the word and symbol are often used together, for a proper copyright notice, it is really only necessary to include either the word “copyright” or its symbol, a small “c” with a circle around it (e.g., ©). It should also bear the date of creation. And, unless the author or owner of the work is clear elsewhere in the context of the manuscript, the copyright notice should also bear the name of the author or owner of the copyright. For example, if your work is titled “The Autobiography of Pamela Rice Hahn,” and you are Pamela Rice Hahn (which would mean there are two of me out there), the copyright symbol followed by the year should suffice. Otherwise, it's a good idea to include your name in the copyright notice.
Therefore, it's a good idea to include a copyright notice on all of your works, and place it prominently either at the beginning or the end of your work. Positioning your notice close to the title is always a good bet. As a quick summary, any of the following are acceptable:
Copyright © 2008 Pamela Rice Hahn
Copyright 2008 Pamela Rice Hahn
© 2008 Pamela Rice Hahn
Proof of Ownership
You may have heard that you can secure a copyright by mailing a copy of the work to yourself. This is sound in theory, but it isn't necessary, nor is it definitive proof of ownership.
The idea behind mailing yourself a copy is that you then possess proof of the date of creation, based on the federal postmark on the canceled stamp and envelope. If a copyright issue arises based on the work, you can present the sealed envelope to a judge at trial, who would then open it and find your original work inside, with the date stamp on the outside of the envelope giving an indication of when the work was created. However, the other party could challenge this evidence, saying perhaps that you mailed the envelope to yourself unsealed and then inserted the work at a later date. While it might seem like a far-fetched defense, it is possible that it could succeed at trial, depending on the particular situation that surrounds the events leading up to the copyright infringement.
You can certainly still mail yourself a copy of your works as prima facie evidence, but it's not a good idea to rely on it as sole proof of ownership and creation. It's also a good idea to hang onto your notes and research, especially if you get into the habit of dating them. The more evidence you can provide, the better.
Much of this talk, however, is probably a little extreme. The chances of someone stealing your material are very, very slim. It does happen, but not to the extreme that beginning writers suspect. If you are careful about keeping your records, you shouldn't have any problem. You should also keep records of where and when you submit your material, and any response you receive.
If you have a really good story, and you really want to make certain that your work is copyrighted, you may wish to register it with the copyright office. In order to do this, you will have to send in an application form, the required fee, and a copy of the work. The Library of Congress retains a copy of all registered copyrighted material, whether published or not. Depending on your particular circumstances, you may have to submit two or more copies instead of one. You can get all the details you need by contacting the federal government's copyright office at: Library of Congress, Copyright Office, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20559-6000, Phone: (202) 707-3000,