To begin with, your written work is copyrighted and owned by you the moment you finish writing it. There's no need to file any paperwork. You do not need to add any symbols to your material. You do not have to mail it to yourself! You wrote it, you own it, you hold the copyright. That is the current US law, and that same law has been adopted by most other countries around the world.
The US Copyright Office maintains a FAQ on their site:
Note that the US office maintains relations with just about every other country's office, so you don't have to worry about copyrighting your information all around the globe. When something is under copyright in the US, it is under copyright everywhere. It's like getting married in the US - you're still married when you travel to France.
Filing for Copyright
If you automatically get an instant copyright the moment you write something, why would you bother to file for it and pay that filing fee? The answer comes down to how you feel your copyright might be violated. Here are the four situations you can fall into, depending on whether you file and whether the thief makes money from their theft.
NO FILING / THEY MAKE NO PROFIT - If you have not filed for a copyright, and the thieves made no profit from their activities, then you get no money from them either. I.e. if they copied your book and then distributed it for free on the web, all you could do is have them take it down. They didn't make any money, so you can't get any money out of them.
NO FILING / THEY MAKE A PROFIT - If you have not filed for a copyright, and the thieves made a profit by reselling your material, then you have full rights to the profit they made. They took in money, and that money is now yours. Of course you have to sue them to get it, but legally it is yours.
FILING / THEY MAKE NO PROFIT - If you have a copyright filing legally recorded and then they steal your content, then whether or not they made a profit from their activities, you get to receive damages from them. Of course this will depend if they have money to pay those damages :). If the thief is a starving student, good luck on getting any money from their empty bank account. So this might only be worth the effort if the thief is someone with money to pay the fines.
FILING / THEY MAKE A PROFIT - If you have a copyright filing and then they steal your content and they DO make a profit, then you're especially in luck. You can take that profit (which after all was made with your words) and you can hit them with a fine on top of that.
Because there is the added benefits to cover all situations, it is usually worth it to you to file a copyright on your work when it is complete, just to have it done. It's very quick and easy to do, and can help you feel that you've reached a milestone. If you don't do it, though, don't feel like you "do not have a copyright"! You most definitely do.
Pursuing a Copyright Violation
It's worth noting here that few people in life are ever going to "give you money" without a fight. Whether you have issues with your landlord, problems with your neighbor, or copyright violations, usually you have to go to court in order to get the settlement. So typically that is true in a copyright case. The defendant always has the legal right to explain their side of the story and argue why they feel they did not violate the copyright. Look at it from the other side of the coin - it would be a fairly unethical world if someone could pop up out of nowhere and sue YOU for your book, claiming they owned the copyright on your words, and force you to pay them $25,000 without a fair hearing in court! The court system exists to protect us all.
So that being said, if you decide you want to go after someone who has violated your copyright, make sure you talk to a legal advisor and look at all the sides of the situation. Are you absolutely sure they copied large chunks of your material? Do you have proof on your computer or in your files of when you initially wrote that material, so you have something to present in court? Do you think this person you're about to sue can actually pay the money you want - i.e. is it going to be worth it to go through the legal hassle?
Again just as with neighbor disputes and other situations, it can be tempting to want to "hurt" the other person and prove you're right. However, in life that's rarely a long term healthy stance to take. It hurts you as much as it hurts them and especially in legal battles it can drain your own finances far more. It's far better to seek out a win-win negotiation where they stop the infringement and if anything help you promote your works in return for you not proceeding against them in court. After all, people make mistakes, people misunderstand how copyright works, and sometimes people are just stupid.
But if you DO decide to proceed with a copyright lawsuit, the more material you can have to bolster your case, and definitely all the filling documentation from your filing process, can help ensure that you win.
A final note - you do of course have to have filed your copyright BEFORE they stole it if you want those extra damages :). You can't claim someone violated a filed copyright if it wasn't even filed when they did their activity. It would be like trying to sue someone for wearing red pants to school, but you only made the rule about "no red pants in school" *after* they had already done it. You can't go back in time :).
Traditional Publishing - main page
Overview of Traditional Publishing
How Copyright Works
Working With A Literary Agent
... My Concerns about Agents
Finding a Publisher
... Writer's Market
Writing a Query Letter
... Query Letter Tips
... Query Letter Issues to Avoid
Getting To a Contract Offer
Negotiating the Contract
Working With the Publisher or Agent
... Publishers and Editing
Submitting to Magazines
Tips for Submitting Short Stories
Getting Your Book Published
Writing Tips and Online Books
Lisa Shea Medieval Romance Novels
Online Literary Magazines
Lisa Shea Website Main Page