What Does it Mean to Copyright Your Work?
US copyright law protects original works of authorship when an author fixes the work in a tangible medium of expression. Obtaining a copyright gives you protection to prevent theft and unauthorized use. That's why a copyright is thought of as a "negative right." It excludes others from using your work without your permission, with certain exceptions.
There are two steps to obtaining a copyright. The first is to see if your work is eligible to be copyrighted. As stated above, copyright law protects original works of authorship (meaning you independently created it and didn't copy it) that are fixed (captured in a permanent state, like saving your book on Microsoft Word, for example) in a tangible mediums of expression (copyright protects expression of ideas, not ideas themselves).
What Isn't Copyrightable?
When determining if your work is eligible, keep in mind that there are several things that aren't deemed creative enough to be copyrightable, such as:
familiar symbols or designs,
mere variations of typographic ornamentation,
lettering, or coloring,
listings of ingredients or contents,
works in the public domain, and
works created by the US government (with certain exceptions).
Items like procedures, algorithms, discoveries, etc. that are more technical and utilitarian in nature may be protected under patent law. Titles, names, short phrases, and slogans can be trademarked. Lists (like a recipe or phonebook) are just that: mere lists and aren't creative enough. The actual recipe itself can be protected as a trade secret.
Assuming your work is eligible, once you click save on your computer and create the work, congratulations, you have a copyright! However, that doesn't protect you. What provides protection is a copyright registration.
Why Should You Register Your Copyright?
The second and most crucial step in obtaining a copyright is actually registering the copyright. The reason why you must copyright your work is that you can't sue for copyright infringement without registration and you also lose out on statutory damages that you would otherwise be entitled to ($30k per infringement and up to $150k for willful (intentional) infringement), as well as attorney's fees. Moreover, once your work is registered, it is evidence that your registration is valid.
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