You do not need to put a copyright symbol on your work.  Copyright laws are clear on this.  Whether or not you use this symbol or anything else, you own a piece of writing the moment you create it.  Copyright issues regarding the Internet, however, are not clear at this time, and are sure to be a hot topic in the immediate future.
The use of the copyright notice is up to you and does not require advance permission from, or registration with, the Copyright Office.  If you decide to use it, the copyright notice should contain all of the following three elements:

1. The symbol © (the letter in a circle), or the word "Copyright" or the abbreviation "Copr.," and
2. The year of first publication of the work; and
3. The name of the owner of copyright.  Example: © 1998 John Doe

To obtain application forms, or for further information, write to:

Library of Congress
Copyright Office
Publications Section, LM-455 101
Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20559-6000

Or you may obtain application forms and further information via the Internet.  According to the Copyright Office, all copyright application forms may be downloaded from the Internet and printed for use in registering a claim to copyright.  The forms may be accessed and downloaded by connecting to the Copyright Office homepage on the World Wide Web.  The address is:

  • ADVICE. Many people are nervous about this regardless of the law.  It is true that previous copyright law, in effect before 1976, and for a fuzzy period between then and 1989, was not nearly as protective, and much of our fear about copyright protection comes as anecdote from those times and people who remember the earlier law.  If you are nervous about this, you can copyright your work yourself by writing to the copyright office in Washington.  A second strategy is to thoroughly package your work and mail it to yourself by registered mail.  When you receive the package, do not open it!  Store it for safekeeping.  In this way you will always be able to prove exactly when you wrote something and what it was.
  • We hear newspaper and television reports all the time about somebody claiming that their work was pirated.  This can be quite serious, but so are the consequences.
  • All this said, think the issue out a little for yourself and your own work, and if you are unsure, then go ahead and protect the work every way you can.  The first step in doing this is to clearly place the copyright symbol, year, and your name somewhere up at the top of the manuscript.  Whether you need to do this or not, it's there.  And indeed there may be special circumstances where this is prudent--if you are a teacher distributing original handouts to a class, for example.  It would not hurt to remind students that simply because something is a handout doesn't mean it's not protected by copyright laws.
  • This is all a concern mostly over unpublished work.  Once your work is accepted for publication, the journal or press will take care of the appropriate copyright.