There are many introductions to copyright on the web, but here we want to focus on a key point. Many people do not fully understand when and how copyright comes into being.
The fact is this: You gain legal rights at the exact instant you create a work and fix it in concrete form, such as on paper, in computer memory, on audio- or video-tape. Nothing more need be done: no matter what anyone tells you, you do not have to file any papers, sign any licenses or contracts, or provide notice to anyone.
However, it is in fact a very good idea to add a copyright notice (the famous ©, and your name and the date of publication) and to register your copyright with the Copyright Office, but you do not have to—you own a copyright whether or not you register or provide notice.
You own a U.S. copyright at the moment of creation. In fact, your work is automatically copyrighted in the U.S. (and at the same time in over 160 foreign countries) from the moment of creation.
The irony is that at the moment of creation, your rights are at their highest point. As we discuss later, it is after creation that you may face pressure to give up your rights to publishers or other commercial entities, and you may also decide to voluntarily give up your rights in order to share your work more easily with other people.
Unless you’re an employee who created the work as part of your job, or you created certain kinds of commissioned works —situations in which the work for hire doctrine applies —you start with all the rights: the rights holder is NOT your producer, publisher, record label, or agent. Because you have those rights until you give them away, you should think carefully before doing so.
Next: So what are my rights?