The words you write provide the value in your work. That is what people pay for when they buy your book, or buy a compact disk with an audio track of someone reading your book, or buy a digital file to read on a computer. The words themselves and the message they convey are protected by law in most countries. The works an author produces is known as intellectual property. Much like other forms of property (such as your house or your car) an author's intellectual property can be bought, sold, leased, assigned, licensed, and devised. Intellectual property can also be stolen, which is why it is important for an author to take precautions when trying to get her work published and also after it is being published. The United States copyright law provides protection for authors even if the authors do not formally register the copyright. However, it can be beneficial to register if you want to pursue writing as a career or as a significant source of income.
What is a Copyright?
Simply put, a copyright is a property interest in a work of authorship that the law protects. It is distinguishable from a traditional property right because a copyright protects intangible things. An example: a traditional property right will protect your book if a thief steals it from a book store; a copyright will protect you against a person who plagiarizes your work as their own. Other forms of intellectual property may apply to a book as well (such as a trademark of the publishing company), but an author's words apply only to copyright law.
What are the Requirements of Obtaining a Copyright?
Generally, a work must meet three requirements to be copyrightable. First, it must be an original work. A person cannot take Virgil's Aeneid or the Pledge of Allegiance to the copyright office and get any rights out of them. However, a collection of such material that displays "sufficient creativity" (such as a compilation of Roman poetry with commentary) would be copyrightable. Second, a work must be a work of authorship. This means that a work must be sufficiently final and static to be recognizable: a jazz musical work is copyrightable; a theory or idea about jazz that will guide musicians in new directions is not. Finally, a work must be "fixed." This simply means that the work must be in a medium that is physical in nature. Maya Angelou can certainly copyright her books of poetry, but Homer would not be able to copyright his Iliad because he only recited it orally.
Should I Register My Copyright?
Since 1978, an author in the United States does not need to formally register the copyright to be protected. Anything meeting the above requirements that is produced by an author is protected at the time of creation. However, a career author has incentive to formally register the copyright with the federal copyright office. Generally, a registered copyright will be prima facie evidence that the owner is the true owner of the copyrighted work and in most cases a person will have to register the copyright before they can enforce their rights in court.
What is a License?
A license is a right to use another's property with that person's consent. A copyright license works in the same way. If an author holds a copyright, she can license the right to reproduce the work to others. This is most commonly done when an author wants to publish the book and works with a publishing company or printing house. In the publishing contract, a clause or a series of clauses will grant this right to the publisher so it can reproduce the book. It is important to read the publishing contract carefully so you know precisely what you are granting and what rights you are retaining. Because these contracts can be complicated the best policy is to make sure you understand what you are agreeing to before signing anything.
Additional resources provided by the author
There are a variety of legal websites for authors on the internet that provides general information about the law of publishing. Further, a referral for legal counsel in the State of Illinois can be sought from the Chicago Bar Association at (312) 554-2001 or the Illinois State Bar Association at (800) 922-8757.