Currently, most countries recognize the existence of a copyright at the moment when a "work" is "fixed in a tangible medium of expression" (see emphasized text in the center box). Those terms are interpreted fairly broadly. A "work" can be any creative expression: a drawing, a song, a poem, a photograph -- even an email. And it doesn't have to be on paper, pixels on a computer screen count too.
Technically, nothing ever needs to be "copyrighted," because the copyright exists as soon as whatever-it-is exists. What the Copyright Office does is register information about who created (or owns) the subject of the copyright (the whatever-it-is that was created).
So why register? Copyright registration establishes a presumption of ownership; although if something is registered falsely, that presumption can be rebutted through litigation. Copyright registration is also a prerequisite to any lawsuit alleging infringement of a work. If an author or artist intends to offer their work for sale or reproduction, then it is a good idea to register the work before making it available.
Registration requests can be filed either electronically or on paper. The costs and requirements for filing vary depending on the type of work being registered and the format of the request. The instructions should be followed carefully to insure that a registration request is valid.
The United States Copyright Office provides all of the resources necessary for registering and searching for copyright information. Authors and artists just starting the process should go here first. If managing the process seems too complicated or challenging, a qualified attorney should be contacted for assistance.
Licensing organizations have been established by creators and publishers of various categories of works to facilitate the process of obtaining permission and making royalty payments. If you are interested in using works created by others in a for-profit or commercial setting, you might want to contact one of these organizations.
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