“Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet . . . Whenever a copyright law is to be made or altered, then the idiots assemble.”

– Mark Twain

Some things about copyrights are tricky, and then there are those that are clear cut. I admit that I don’t understand everything myself. I’m not an attorney and I don’t speak Legalese. I’ve listened to and read several blog posts, forum articles, and much commentary about how to copyright, what gets a copyright, and what’s necessary to do it. I recently read an extensive article on copyrights and not one time did it mention the U. S. Copyright Office or the Library of Congress. Now it should be taken into consideration that I’ve already addressed the issue that I am not an attorney. Anything you read here about copyrights should be researched by yourself and concerns need to be taken up with someone who has passed a state bar exam for your area in the field of law. So in other words, Consult An Attorney.

To begin with, I’m only speaking to the copyright of photographic works. So I’m not covering all media of intellectual property. Photographically speaking, it’s true that you own the copyrights to an image as soon as you release the shutter. So as soon as you capture the image, its your’s. You can put the copyright stamp (the c in the circle…©, which you can produce by holding down the Alt-key on a PC and typing 0169). This is normally done in three parts, the copyright symbol, the year of the copyright, and the owner. So mine looks like this: © 2010 Terrell Neasley. Once you’ve got that done, you can place that notice anywhere on your photo you like. Some people put it across the center, so its not so easily removed. I usually put mine in a corner of the image and fade it a little. You can do what you feel comfortable with. 
Once you’ve taken the shot and included the copyright notice, all that is left is proving it’s yours. This is where most people get into trouble. I’ve heard several theories as to how this is done, but there’s no need to go into all that. The only thing that will stand up in court as proof that you own said image is your registration with the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. Here is the difference between a registered image and one that is not. As it relates to theft, if another agency or someone else uses your image without permission, you can take them to court if you deem the offense serious enough. Mind you…court a’int cheap. Without a copyright, you have to establish somehow that the picture belongs to you. If you can’t tough luck. But lets say the image still has the metatag data embedded in it and it identifies you and your camera as the owner. Great, now ownership has been established. All that happens now…I should say probably happen is that the judge will slap the offender on the wrist and say, “Hey…Cut it out! Quit using this guy’s images. Court adjourned.” And then you have to give your lawyer some money and pay the court fees. You might get fortunate enough to get the judge to order the defendant to pay some of that. ON THE CONTRARY… if you ARE registered, it would go like this. You produce the registration, the court slaps the offending party with Actual Damages by using the industry standard for licensing fees had the defendant legally acquired your permission (depending on how the image was used); You’d get Statutory Damages upwards of $150,000 just for him being a butt-head, AND the guy would have to cover your legal bills. See the benefit here?
So how do you register your copyright? Well first, you have to answer one question. Has the image been published? If it has, you need to make two copies of it. If not, one will suffice. You can’t send in published images as a group via electronic means though. Its got to be hard copies.  The C.O. defines Publication as: 
Publication Under copyright law, publication is the distribution of copies of a work—in this case, a photograph—to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership or by rental, lease, or lending. Offering to distribute copies to a group of people for purposes of further distribution or public display also constitutes publication. However, a public display of a photograph does not in itself constitute publication. The definition of publication in the U.S. copyright law does not specifically address online transmission. The Copyright Office therefore asks applicants, who know the facts surrounding distribution of their works, to determine whether works are published.
Go to the website, fill out the forms, include it with the disk, send it in, and wait. It can take MONTHS for electronic submissions to get the certificate back (or even 2 years for hard copies), but that’s okay. It’s backdated to the day the copyright office gets it in the mail. By the way, send it registered mail and get delivery confirmation on it and file that away too. Within 90 days of creation, your image is covered. Outside of that, your protection is limited if the image is not registered at the time of an offense. So on day 50, if you see your shot in a magazine, you can still go register the shot (with the next 40 days) and take the magazine to court. If its day 93 by the time you see your unregistered image in that magazine, you can still go register the shot, and then sue, but damages will be limited or could be nil. So a newly born image is automatically protected for 90 days, registered or unregistered, at the time of offense. After that, it has to be registered before the offense. So if its a whole year (365 days) after creation by the time you register, and then at day 366 someone offends, you can still take them to court and make’em pay.
As a rule, many photogs send in all their new works created every 3 months. So every 90 days, they send in everything they did as a collective unit or single body of work at a cost of $50 (Its $65 for a group if published. Check current fees). You can save $15 if you use the electronic submission. You can visit the website to figure out what forms you’ll use for hard copies. These have changed recently so you may need to check again, if you think you already know. 
There is a plethora of creditable information governing copyrights. My second most valuable source is Photo Attorney.com, run by Carol E. Wright. She is an attorney specializing in the law for photographers. In fact, right now her latest blog post covers protecting your images. You can more than likely search or peruse her blog to get a bunch of professional advice that cover the basics and bring you up to date on current issues. I’ve detailed only the basic info that you can easily find. Things like Fair Use, Licensing/Creative Commons, and Reg 2257 are topics that the pros and legal advisors specialize in. I can only generalize. In fact, here are some of Carol Wright’s important articles as posted on her blog, of course if she says anything different from me, go with her’s:
I also recommend heavily Stephen Haynes. He has taken a hiatus from his blog as of a week ago, but you can still search through it for plenty of details and issues. He’s an attorney also and wrote the definitive book covering this Reg 2257 stuff, “A Photographer’s Guide to Section 2257” . You can get the soft cover version or buy it in PDF. I got it, its worth it. I recommend it. He’s helping with a lawsuit against the government because of some of the rights photographers have that are infringed upon by 2257. 
I think this is one of the longest posts I’ve done. You’re probably tired of me by now. So I’ll forgo Creative Commons Licencing Agreements, and International Copyrights. I’m sure you can look that stuff up anyways. Take a look at TinEye, the reverse image search engine. I advise researching how to use metadata in your shots and being careful of where you place your images for display online. Its a simple thing to capture an image from online. It makes me wonder why we use unprotected sites like DeviantArt, Flikr, Model Mayhem, and even Blogger, to display our work. Why do we do that? What do we truly gain from the assumed risk? Anyone…