A few years ago, I wrote a computer program to maintain my scout troop data. I wanted to distribute it using the shareware concept, but I wanted to legally protect my work from illegal copying or pirating. So I registered an official copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. A copyright actually takes effect from the moment your original work is fixed in some medium of expression. But registration of your work makes it a public record and is also required if you should need to bring a lawsuit for infringement. So this is how I did it.
MAKE A COPY OF YOUR WORK -- You must submit a non-returnable copy of your work to the Copyright Office. In my case, I registered a software program, so I made copies of the first page of several of the modules, and a copy of a drawing of the database architecture as well. You need to 'deposit' something that will remain on file and prove the original content you are protecting.
FILL OUT FORM OR PROCESS ONLINE -- Registering online (called eCO) is cheaper (currently $35) and quicker than via the mail. You can still submit a hardcopy with this method, or you can also submit your work electronically. The alternative is to fill in Form CO and mail it, which you can get at the link at the bottom of this article.
SEND IN YOUR DEPOSIT AND PAY FEE -- Yes, it's really pretty simple, huh? Once you pay the registration fee and the Copyright Office receives a 'deposit' of your work, you are officially registered. However, it may take many months (up to 2 years) to receive your copyright certificate. You are still protected from the day they receive your money and deposit, though.
MARK YOUR WORK AND PUBLISH -- Publishing is not required to register a copyright. However, if you want to publish your work, it's a good idea to register the copyright first. Mark your work with a copyright notice with "Copyright" or "copr.", the year of first publication, and the name of the owner; something like this: Copyright 2009 Bryan Cass. You can also use the © symbol in place of the word Copyright.
- I cannot possibly cover all questions regarding copyrights here. But the official U.S. Copyright Office web site is very helpful and has a large FAQ.