The best way to protect your creations, including things like writing, photos, music and other creative output, is with a copyright. If you don't officially register a copyright, this is absolutely free. You might need additional intellectual property protection as well, but most copyright protections are free and automatic.
Official Copyright Is Not Required
It's commonly misunderstood that you must register your creative work with the United States Copyright Office to receive a copyright, but this is not the case. From the moment you finish your creative work, it is automatically copyrighted as yours. However, it is recommended that you register a copyright with the Copyright Office since it establishes a record that you claimed the copyright.
Understanding What Constitutes a Copyright
Head to the U.S. Copyright Office's FAQs page. The Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress. This is your best source of information to understand what is protected by copyright. Many things are protected by copyright, including written materials, lyrics, music, software, photographs, drawings and websites. Items like names, titles, simple recipes, short phrases and ideas are not protected by copyright law.
Registering a Copyright
Although you are not legally required to copyright your work, doing so can add a layer of protection should your work be used later without your consent. Registration serves as unambiguous documentation that your work was in existence on the date of copyright. If you ever get into a legal tussle over ownership, registration can be a huge help.
You can register your copyright with the United States Copyright Office online for the standard fee of $55. But if you are registering only one item, you are the only creator it is credited to, and you did not create it as part of your employment for another party, the fee is only $35.
In the United States, copyrights granted after 1977 last until 70 years after the author's death. After this time, they become part of the public domain. There are some different rules for work created in the course of employment or that were commissioned, copyright will last between 95 and 120 years.
Keep copies of all documents related to your copyright because if you face legal challenges later, these will be key pieces of evidence to demonstrate that the work is, in fact, yours.
Other Things to Consider
Look for other methods of protecting your intellectual property. Although many things are not covered by copyright, they can be protected by other means, usually through trademarks and patents. Sometimes, a type of legal protection other than a copyright is a better option for the type of intellectual property you have, like a patent for your innovation.
Do not assume that because your work is protected by a copyright in the United States that it is protected internationally. Every country has its own intellectual property laws, and although many do have protections in place for foreign copyrights, each has specific limits and restrictions on these protections. Research the copyright laws in each country where you plan to market or license your work. You might have to copyright it again in one or more of the countries where you make it available. How long a copyright lasts in each country is determined by that country's copyright laws and any international copyright treaties it has signed.