The "most protected" copyright protection available is registering you works with the U.S. Copyright Office. It is $35 per registration and it grants you a presumption of copyright protection, statutory damages should your works be infringed, greater ability to utilize DMCA website takedowns, as well as the ability to register your works with U.S. Customs to better prevent the unauthorized import of counterfeit versions of the songs into the U.S. You do not need to register your songs to obtain copyright protection (its granted upon creation) but you are not guaranteed to obtain the protections listed above without registration, and you would likely have a more difficult (and expensive) time enforcing rights in your songs without registration should they be infringed. If you are serious about protecting your songs, copyright registration is a relatively inexpensive and effective protection tool.
As for foreign copyright protection, you may already qualify for protection abroad depending on various factors. The Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works gives artists from Berne Convention countries the ability to obtain copyright protection in their works in other Berne Convention countries subject to attachment and national copyright protection requirements. Attachment requires that: (a) the artist of a work be a national of a Berne Convention country; (b) the artist is a habitual resident of a Berne Convention country; (c) that the work is first published in a Berne Convention country; or (d) the work is published in a Berne Convention country within 30 days after an initial publishing in a non-Berne Convention country. If there is attachment in your songs, and they qualify for protection under the national copyright laws of other Berne Convention countries, your songs may qualify for copyright protection in other Berne Convention countries. However, further information about you, your songs and the countries that you desire copyright protection in would be needed to verify.
Working with a qualified IP attorney can help you to develop an effective international copyright protection strategy and assist in the U.S. copyright registration process. Good luck!
Attorney Michels has already covered most of the bases.
I write only to note that a recorded song is protected by two copyrights: one for the words and music [the "musical composition" copyright] and one for the actual recording [the "sound recording" copyright].
As the author of the words and music you own the copyright in the musical composition.
If you did not perform the songs all by yourself, however, then the performers who did perform the songs are the authors of those recordings and, absent a written agreement assigning their copyrights to you, are the owners of those sound recording copyrights [you may also be a co-author and co-owner of the copyrights depending on what you did to "produce" the songs].
You should read a few books about the music business [linked to below] and then spend some time with your own California-licensed entertainment attorney. Good luck.
The above response is general information ONLY and is not legal advice, does not form an attorney-client relationship, and should NOT be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. I am not your attorney. You should seek the advice of competent counsel before taking any action related to your inquiry.
As soon as you reduce your song to a tangible medium (write the sheet music down), you have a copyright interest in it. Publish it, and then register it at the copyright office, and you are in a position to sue someone if they copy it. Recent 9th Circuit appellate holdings indicate it will be enough to have applied for the protection at the time you file an action in court for infringement, but you are then only going to be able to collect damages going forward.
Given the low cost of copyright registration, why delay - I am not understanding the "poor man's" concept - if you are unable to afford the modest cost of a copyright registration, it seems unlikely you could ever redeem your rights in court by hiring a lawyer to draft your complaint and handle the litigation!
Internationally, the rights of creators in works of authorship is governed by the Berne convention. Here again, you need to reduce it to a tangible form (recording or sheet music) and publish and yes, that will stand up in court.
Some people say that sending a registered letter to themselves is the "poor man's copyright." This can be useless or worse. Court decisions recognize that a registered letter can be sent unsealed, and the sender can put something in later. There are other ways to tamper with a registered letter that courts know about.
This is an unreliable form of evidence.
I hope you pay attention to the remarks of counsel above.
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Messrs. Ballard and Michels provided most of the details, I would only add a few specifics about copyright registration with the Copyright Office. You can register your works online at www.copyright.gov, under certain circumstances you can register several works under a single registration for the $35 fee and, as was pointed out, under certain circumstances, you can register a copyright in the musical works and in the sound recording if the owner (claimaint) are the same. Please see the copyright office Circulars available for free on the web site regarding registration of musical works, sound recordings and both.
This is intended as general advice, not specific to any particular situation and my answering the question does not create an attorney-client relationship.