You've worked hard on your book. Is someone going to steal it?
Even before they’ve published, new authors tend to be concerned (sometimes overly so) about copyright, to the point where some are reluctant to share anything about their book projects out of fear someone will “steal” their ideas. In general, such concerns are the mark of a novice; experienced, professional authors may choose not to talk a lot about a work-in-progress out of concern for mucking up their creative process, but they aren’t worried about theft at that point; they know that what makes a book successful isn’t so much the idea as how it’s rendered on the page, using all the talent, energy, and skill an author can muster. They also understand that as soon as their original work is “fixed” in “tangible” form, it’s covered under US copyright law, so something as simple as an email stored in a digital file is protected by copyright—there’s no registration or notice required.
You may hear of other ways to “copyright” your work, such as mailing your manuscript to yourself or showing it to friends. These were pre-digital safeguards for proving that you were the author and attaching a date to your work. If you save your files in your computer, the author and date are electronically attached automatically. Of course, if you want to pay to have your work registered with the US Copyright Office (the fee is $140), you can do so at any time, pre- or post-publication. The primary advantage to registering pre-publication is that should you need to bring a lawsuit against someone for copyright infringement, preregistered copyright entitles you to seek compensation for statutory as opposed to actual damages as well as reimbursement of legal costs. And in any event, before you can take legal action in the United States against someone for copyright infringement, you’ll need to register your copyright, but you can do this at any point during the life of your book, which for US copyright purposes (covering books published after 1978) is the life of the author plus seventy years.
Before you plunk down your money for copyright registration, consult an attorney who specializes in intellectual property and/or educate yourself on the details of copyright using an authoritative guide like The Chicago Manual of Style, a reference widely used by publishers not only for detailed explanations on matters of copyright and fair use, but also for matters of usage, grammar, punctuation, and style. There you’ll find specifics on copyright notice, which is no longer required under US law (if you’re publishing elsewhere, the laws are different) but is strongly advised as a deterrent against infringement. Copyright notice is printed on the copyright page—on the flip side of the title page in print editions, and more commonly at the end of an ebook.
Sadly, copyright protection has done little to combat the problem of piracy, which plagued the music and video industries before spreading to books. As the Google books project proved, little effort or expense is required to scan and upload a book. (For the record, Google attempted to include in their project only books for which they believed the copyright was expired or “in question"; much legal wrangling ensued with authors).
As a deterrent to piracy, some publishers embed DRM (digital rights management) into their ebooks. If you're uploading your own ebooks with individual vendors, each will ask if you’d like to enable DRM. I don’t use DRM, because from what I understand, pirates can more or less instantly break through the DRM barrier, while DRM restricts readers to a single device for reading a book.
The truth is that pirates focus on “hot” titles, the ones from which they’re most likely to make a profit. If your book is one of those, use a service like Muso, which for a modest monthly fee will scour the internet daily for pirated versions of your books and, at your request, remove illegal files from hosting services—and you can try Muso first, for thirty days, free of charge, to see if your books are being pirated.