Plagiarism has been an issue for as long as people have produced personal work. It wasn't until the 1970s that any formal copyright laws were introduced to protect the work of individuals. When laws were introduced, protection was for the span of the author's life and 50 years after death. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, which extended the length of copyrights to 70 years after the death of the author. Although it is not required, an author can use the copyright symbol to establish ownership of a copyright on a piece of created material.
What the Copyright Symbol Covers
The copyright symbol indicates creative ownership of an individual's work and gives the creator full control of the work. If you are the sole copyright owner, you can copy, sell, rent, lease and lend copies of your work. If the work is musical or visual in nature, you can publicly perform and record it. If you hold the copyright to a piece of work, anyone who wishes to copy or distribute the work must obtain your written permission stating that it is OK for them to do so.
Copyright Symbol Usage
In 1988, the United States amended the 1976 Copyright Act with the Berne Convention Implementation Act. The new act made the use of a copyright symbol unnecessary on any works created after March 1, 1989. An author can still place the symbol (©) on the work, but every piece of work is automatically copyrighted at the moment of creation.
Despite the fact that it is unnecessary to apply a copyright symbol to your work if it is published after March 1, 1989, it is still recommended that you do. A copyright symbol does not require any permission from the government to use. It is the responsibility of the author to place the symbol on any protected works in an attempt to inform the public that the work is under copyright. This is extremely important because if a work is infringed upon or plagiarized, but bears the copyright symbol, the court will not allow the defendant to claim innocent infringement.
Works That Require the Symbol
All works published before March 1, 1989 require usage of the copyright symbol if the author intends to protect the work. If there is no notice of copyright on such works, then it may have resulted in a loss of copyright.
The copyright symbol is required on all published work. As stated by the 1976 Copyright Act, a published work is defined as “distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease or lending.”
Unpublished works have never required a copyright notice, but the author can place a notice of copyright if desired. The U.S. Copyright Office suggests that an unpublished work be marked with a copyright like the following:
Unpublished work © 2007 John Doe
When a Copyright Doesn't Exist
Most work created before the 20th century is no longer under copyright protection. Under the current law, the copyrights have expired because the creator of the work is deceased and the allotted amount of time has passed for the copyright to expire. These works have passed from copy protected into the public domain. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, the term "public domain" does not refer to an actual place, but rather a piece of work that is no longer under copyright protection or, for some reason, did not meet copyright requirements. Anything that is within the public domain is free to copy and distribute without permission.