I'm going to revisit copyright briefly today.
For some reason copyright seems to confuse writers more than almost any other subject. I spent the month of April, 2006, doing a series of posts on the subject. You can find them in my archives.
This morning I read an email on a loop in which a writer asked if anyone had encountered problems with a publisher who was interested in a manuscript but was expressing concern because the work had been previously copyrighted.
I read that post twice trying to understand what the writer was asking. It made no sense to me. I finally decided the writer was confusing copyright and copyright REGISTRATION. So we're going to revisit the issue yet again. Please remember that I am not an attorney. The information I am giving here is the result of my own practical knowledge. If you have a copyright issue, you should consult a lawyer.
In my post of April 3, 2006, I said that copyright is the protection afforded by a country to its artists (including literary, performance, dramatic, musical, architectural and visual arts) for the original works they create. These works can be both published and unpublished. In the United States, the copyright protection begins the moment the artist puts the work into tangible form (manuscript, canvas, film, musical score, computer program, architectural plans, whatever).
Pay special attention to that last sentence. The minute you put your work into a fixed form, your copyright protection begins. That means, as you type your manuscript, you are copyrighted.
What confuses people is that this was not always the case. At one time, copyright was tied to publication. A lot of people still believe that it is. However, the copyright laws were overhauled several time in the last century. Under the new laws, you are covered from the moment you put the work into tangible form.
Copyright registration is a different matter. Registration is the process of legally establishing a public record of your copyright. It is voluntary. However, in the U.S., it is necessary before you can file a copyright infringement case in a court. That's a powerful inducement. Remember: we have both civil courts and criminal courts. Someone who deliberately infringes your copyright can be found guilty in a criminal court for doing so (without your filing a copyright registration). You can be awarded actual damages as a result of that deliberate infringement. However, you cannot file a suit for copyright infringement and collect punitive damages without that registration.
Think of it this way. When you own a house, you have a deed, your legal proof of ownership. If you decide to rent that house out, you give your tenant a lease. That lease does NOT give ownership of your house to the tenant. It merely establishes the tenant's right to use the property for a specified purpose, for a specified period of time, in exchange for a specified amount of money. As long as that lease is in effect, you--the owner--cannot move more people into the house, even though you still own the property. You have granted your tenant the exclusive right to use that property for a certain period of time. When that lease expires, you are free to rent the house to another tenant.
A publishing contract works in a similar way. You retain your ownership (copyright) to the work in question. But the contract is like a lease, permitting the publisher to use the work for a specific purpose for a specific period of time in exchange for a specific consideration. The publisher does NOT own the copyright. When the contract expires, the publisher's right to use your manuscript also expires, and you are then free to contract with someone else.
Does that help? If not, the U.S. government has a great website for copyright questions. Go to: http://www.copyright.gov/.