Copyright is not a black & white issue, but has layers of gray matter –
(see various links below with helpful copyright information)
There are many ongoing discussions on this topic in various writer websites, blogs and columns. There was a great conversation at Indies Unlimited and another on LinkedIn. Some say “keep it simple and mail yourself the manuscript.” The truth is you don’t even have to do that – As an author of a work you automatically have the copyright, whether you are a writer or student, at least according to the newest law.
In 1998 they updated the Copyright Act of 1976. You have the rights to your work for life plus seventy years!
There are some issues though, that crop up from time to time, when you may need more than your copyright of author. If you truly want to be protected, in a case of plagiarism for example, the courts will be more in your favor to award your injury if you have the copyright registered.
Lucky for us all, it is easy to do and fairly inexpensive. Just go on-line and register and pay the $35 fee, that’s it. http://www.copyright.gov/
The gray area of copyright law comes into play more often when we choose to sell our rights, or license the rights. This is also very important to know about, if you ever quote someone, or use parts of other people’s work in any novel, instructional material or classwork.
For example, in copyright law there is an exception 110-1 which states some works can be quoted and used for educational purposes. Like any exception, you need to understand when and where it applies. Most teachers use this exception in their classroom when they show a film, or pass out enrichment materials. Most don’t give it a second thought, however as authors, we need to be sure that any content we use to support our own work, is licensed for that use, before we use it. The intent of the redistribution is also very important.
There are some places where it is easier to find the public work we can use and reference in our writing, let’s say for our own blog. We can visit the Public Domain and see what is there open for the public. Just make sure you understand what can be used, and how. Also, there is work listed as Creative Commons, again with various licenses controlling how the work can be used. So read and understand the license attached to the work you want to quote.
The same kind of protection follows musicians. There have been cases where one songwriter will sue another – most famous that comes to my mind is when George Harrison was sued by the Chiffons for his ‘My Sweet Lord’ recording. On that note – here is a sample of the famous two songs – Judge for yourself.