Basically, if you wrote it, you own the copyright.
You don’t have to apply for a copyright for your own written work. The second you put those words out on a page, you own the copyright.
Now, if you register your work with the United States Copyright Office, you can sue for monetary damages in the case of infringement. But I’ll be honest. This usually doesn’t happen with literary works. The money isn’t there. It would cost you more to litigate a case than you would ever get back. And that’s if your work is pirated in the same country where you live. If you’re trying to settle an infringement case that happens overseas, well, good luck. But the United Nations does have Intellectual Copyright Statutes that are taken seriously — if you have the pull to make the UN sit up and take notice.
NEVER SIGN AWAY YOUR COPYRIGHT.
Always read the fine print in your contracts. A legitimate publisher will never ask for this. And if they do, WALK AWAY.
This means the whole kit-and-kaboodle. Don’t sign this away either. This means you can’t publish this work again unless you rewrite it all together. This includes reprint rights, other mediums, languages, and even technologies not created yet.
This means permission to publish your work anywhere in the world in the English language.
The right to publish your work in any electronic format (epub, mobi, iBook, CD-ROMS, blog posts, Tweets, formats yet undiscovered).
The right to publish an audio (spoken/verbal/podcast/taped) version of your work.
Foreign Language Rights
The right to publish your work in any other foreign language (you fill in the blank here with your favorite non-English language).
First Serial or First Publication Rights
The right to be the first publisher of your work. Period. End stop. IN ANY MEDIUM. These are generally the most valuable rights.
The right to reprint your work after it’s lost first serial or first publication rights. These can be licensed over and over. I call these my “gravy” rights.
This means no one else can buy or license these rights for a certain period of time. For example, after I publish a story in Flash Fiction Online, that work cannot appear in any other format for a period of six months. These are my exclusive rights to the story.
This means after your work is published, you are free to publish it elsewhere without waiting or worrying about this contract being infringed.