By authoring a work, you are automatically granted the copyright to that work in the United States. You do not need to register it, you do not need to send it to yourself in a sealed envelope; all you need to do is to "fix your idea in a tangible medium." That means it must be somewhere other than just inside your head. It can be on a napkin, in a computer, scribbled throughout a notebook, or where ever else you see fit.
However, not everything can be copyrighted. See the copyright section below for more information on the technical aspects of copyright.
The Scholarly Communications & Related Issues library guide has additional information on copyrights pertaining to scholarly work.
For additional information, please consult the following Research Guides:
According to the law, copyright is granted to authors upon expressing their ideas in a "tangible form", even if it is an unpublished manuscript; no registration is needed to become the legitimate copyright holder of your own work. As the author, you have the exclusive right to copy, distributed or perform your work, unless you give your permission to others to do so. In fact, in order to publish your article, all the publisher needs is your permission, yet standard publisher agreements transfer all your rights to the publisher. You don't have to accept it, as the owner of your own intellectual property.
Q: Is Open Access compatibile with copyright? Completely. (EFIL Constorium)
You may also choose to publish your article in an Open Access journal. Many Open Access journals are peer-reviewed and have excellent impact factors. They feature scholarly literature in electronic format, free of charge to the user and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. That means that users can read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, as long as they "give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited," according to the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Nevertheless, the Open Access movement does not stand for "Napster for Science". Your consent, as the author and copyright holder, is needed to publish your work in the public domain, but you retain the right to block the distribution of mangled or misattributed copies. This is how you can maintain control over your own work.
This publishing project is a compelling alternative to traditional publishing options, in which faculty members like you donate your time in writing, reviewing and editing, and still find out that their institutions have to pay ever-increasing fees for accessing works they supported with their own research and institutional funds.
You may not be aware that some of the major journals in your discipline are Open Access. The Directory of Open Access Journals indexes many of the Open Access journals available.
Another option is to archive your research in a disciplinary or intuitional digital repository. Such repositories are harvested by search engines such as Google or Ask and made freely accessible to potential readers. Authors may choose to put an un-refereed preprint into the archive, before they submit it to a peer-reviewed journal. If after submission the article is accepted, and the author retains the right to self-archive, then the refereed or revised postprint may be archived. But even if the publisher does not allow self-archiving, authors can still archive the "corrigenda" (an online preprint vs. the published version of the article).