*This is not legal advice. This is just a writer trying to help other writers. The following is based on U.S. Copyright Guidance from copyright.gov. Check out the site for further resources.*
Understanding when you have a copyright and when you don't can be frustrating.
I'm just here to write, people! I know I've screamed that more than once.
But if you are a professional writer or an aspiring professional writer, it is important to know a little bit about copyright. So here are some pointers.
If You Write It, You Own It (Subject to Some Exceptions. See Below)
If you write a short story, a novel, a poem, or any other creative original work, you own it.
You don't have to do anything else for you to own it; the fact that you created the original work is enough.
However, in order to ensure you are eligible for certain damages should someone infringe upon your copyright, you should register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.
If You Write It "Work for Hire", Then You Don't Own It
If someone hires you to write something, the employer or other person owns it unless you otherwise agree in a written and executed agreement.
If you sign an agreement, the agreement most likely has a "Work for Hire" section, and it also likely asks that you assign any copyright or sign any reasonable document upon request to effectuate the employer's copyright ownership.
If You Write An Indivisible Piece of Work With Someone, You Both Own It
Let's say you and your friend both write a paragraph on gardening. It's not easily divisible to say you own the first sentence and they own the second.
In contrast, what happens if you write a chapter on gardening, and your friend writes a subsequent chapter on vampires, and they both appear in the same work? Well, you own what you wrote and they own what they wrote. The reason: it's easily divisible and distinct.
You Can Transfer Your Copyright.
You can transfer your whole work, or part of it. You can pass it through a will or it will pass intestate.
If a transfer of copyright occurs, make sure it is in writing. You probably want an attorney to help you with this so the instrument is valid. It may cost you a few shekels but at least it'll be done right.
If You Are Receiving A Transfer, Record It With The U.S. Copyright Office
Any transfer of copyright may be recorded in the Copyright Office. It must have the signatures of the relevant transferor. The document at issue should be attached and the work at issue should be specifically identified so that a reasonable search of the work would reveal it.
Registration for the work should also be made.
Once recorded, you will receive a certificate of recordation.
Recording the copyright transfers gives all persons constructive notice of the transfer. It therefore gives the transferee rights against third parties who infringe upon the copyright. It also creates priority of the transfer should the transferor try to transfer the copyright to someone else.
Hope this helps!