American copyright law has never been exactly crystalline, and there is no shortage of lawsuits as a result. How do you copyright your work (mail it to yourself?), and what are the benefits of doing so? Jan F. Constantine recently stepped down from her position as the general counsel for the Authors Guild, which advocates for the rights of writers, but we talked to her while she was still with the organization and asked her about copyright issues.

Jan F. Constantine: This gets a bit complicated, but I’ll be as clear as I can be. Technically, it’s a bit imprecise to talk about “copyrighting” a work. The copyright comes into being when a work is set down (“fixed” is the legal term) in a tangible medium. So as soon as you write something—pen on paper or fingers on keyboard—that’s when copyright protection attaches to the writing.

Registering the copyright is a different story—you get copyright protection whether or not you formally register your work with the Copyright Office, but if you do register, there are added benefits that have been put in place to incentivize copyright owners to register their works. For example, you must register your copyright before you can sue someone for copyright infringement.

Also, timely registration is evidence in court that a copyright is valid and that the facts in the certificate of registration are true. This means in a copyright infringement suit, it becomes the opposing party’s responsibility to show that your copyright is invalid or that you’re not the owner. Lastly, registration makes it clear that you own the copyright, making it harder for infringers to argue that they infringed without knowing who truly owned the work. Writers can register their work at www.copyright.gov. Also, the Authors Guild welcomes self-published authors. Find out about membership at www.authorsguild.com/join. Karen Schechner is the senior Indie editor.