Copyright Myth Number One -- You copyright something by sending it to the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.
Wrong. You copyright something the moment you write it. This applies to computer programmers, poets, songwriters and all of us who write everything from grocery lists to valentines. That's right, you heard me -- the moment you write it, you copyright it. That's the magic behind the U.S. Copyright Act, as amended in 1976.
Before 1976, creators of original works of authorship were required to either register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office or indicate their copyright on every published version of their work (such as by using the "©" symbol). If the author failed to do either, the work lacked federal copyright protection and was vulnerable to infringement. In other words, someone could use the work for their own purposes and the author had no federal recourse.
But in 1976, all that changed. Along with disco balls and bellbottoms, America got a new, amended version of the U.S. Copyright Act. Section 102 of the amended Act states that copyright attaches to original works of authorship "fixed in any tangible means of expression."
Thus, if you forget to register your song with the U.S. Copyright Office, you still own the copyright. If you fail to write a "©" on published versions of your latest haiku, you still have your copyright. If you write a novel and show it to your friend and he tears off the cover page, puts his own name on the manuscript and sells it for a million dollars, you can sue him in federal court for copyright infringement despite the fact that you failed to register your copyright with the Copyright Office before showing it to him. You only need to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before you file suit.
So remember, writers -- when you write, you copywrite.