In the United States today, copyright protection automatically covers all new copyrightable works, including your dissertation. The moment the work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, it is subject to copyright.
In the past, authors had to comply with certain formalities in order to obtain copyright protection. These formalities included registering the work with the US Copyright Office and placing a copyright notice on the work. Copyright law no longer requires that authors comply with these formalities merely to obtain copyright protection. However, registering a work and putting a copyright notice on a work still come with legal benefits, so authors often do these things anyway.
Under current US law, you do not have to provide a copyright notice on your work to receive copyright protection. However, if you are making your work publicly available, you may want to.
Putting a copyright notice (the copyright symbol (©), the year of publication, and the name of the copyright owner) on a work tells the rest of the world that the work is protected by copyright. If the copyright owner later sues someone for infringing her copyright in the work, she can point to the notice to show that the defendant is not an “innocent infringer” and thus may need to pay higher damages.
Under current US law, you do not have to register your work to receive copyright protection. You may want to register it anyway, because copyright registration comes with certain legal benefits. If the work is registered within three months of its publication date or before a particular infringement occurs, the copyright owner can recover statutory damages (monetary awards that need not be connected to actual harm suffered by the copyright holder) and attorney’s fees if she is successful in an infringement suit. Registration is also required before the author can bring a lawsuit about use of her work. However, because registration takes time and money, many works are never registered.
Registering a copyright is not difficult. For instructions and forms, visit the US Copyright Office website. If you have any questions regarding copyright registration, the US Copyright Office has a toll-free help line at 1-877-476-0778. You may register a work at any time while it is still in copyright.
Online registration for a single work of which you are the sole author costs $35. In all other cases, the online registration fee is $55. The fee for registering with a paper application is $85.
If you submit your dissertation to ProQuest, they will register copyright on your behalf, for a fee. The Rackham Graduate School encourages Ph.D. candidates to discuss this option with their advisors before selecting it.
Under US law, the initial copyright holder is the author of the work. In most cases, copyright law treats the creator(s) of the work as the author(s). If someone creates a work as an employee (or in certain cases, as a contractor), that person’s employer is considered the author of the work.
A University of Michigan dissertation author is the initial copyright holder for her dissertation. As a copyright holder, she has certain rights under copyright law. In the United States today, those rights can be separated and subdivided. The author can give others permission to exercise some or all of those rights. That is called a license. If the author agrees only to give that permission to one entity at a time, it is an exclusive license.
If an exclusive license lasts until the end of the copyright term, it is a transfer of copyright. To be valid, a copyright transfer must be in writing and must be signed by the rightsholder or the rightsholder’s agent. The recipient of a copyright transfer can then license or transfer the copyright.
In the academic context, licenses and transfers of copyright are particularly common in publishing agreements. In many cases, the author transfers all or part of the copyright in her publication to the publisher. The copyright holder may also choose to release the work under one of the Creative Commons licenses, particularly if she wishes to increase access to the work.