Something ORIGINAL to you. It has to be 'original' work. You can't copyright something that you've 'copied', 'nicked' or 'plagiarised'. And you can't copyright facts - straight information. It has to be creative - an original expression.
Something that is FIXED. It can't just be an idea: the original work has to be 'fixed' - the music has to be written down or the song recorded. The ap has to be written in 'computer code'. The poetry written down or published. If you hum a tune you've made up and someone else hear's it and they record it before you, they can say they own the copyright - very unfair - BUT copyright works on the idea being 'fixed' ("made concrete" or "nailed down" if you like) not on the idea itself.
Copyright applies to many different media and activities: books, magazines, photographs, artwork, film, video, music, recordings, plays, broadcasts, poetry, digital games and aps. For a full list see What is Copyright?
BTW 'copyright' calls the thing you copyright 'the work' - whether it's a play, film, song, game or whatever it is. For instance, if it's written it's a literary work - and literary work includes computer programme code (because it's written!).
Copyright is just part of Intellectual Property; there are also Patents which deal with 'inventions' (medicines, engineering, etc); Design Rights (fashion, car design, etc); and Tade Marks (registered brand names and logos). Check this out in What is IPR? There are also associated regulations such as Database Rights and Performer's Rights. But back to copyright ....
As soon as you've fixed, published or recorded your work it is automatically in copyright. You don't have to do anything. You don't have to label it or register it. However, it is probably better if you do, to make your position clear and to avoid arguments later ... see the Copyright Checklists below.
Doesn't matter what age you are - if you do something original it's your copyright, whether you are three, thirteen or ninety-three. What you can't do on your own if you are under the age of 18 in the UK is enter into a contract (a business deal) based on your copyright - you need a parent or guardian to do that on your behalf.
You can have joint copyright owners. But if you do it is best to get this sorted out early on and get it written down so there's no arguments later. There have been plenty of cases of legal battles between members of pop groups arguing over who wrote what twenty years before.
If you create an original work as part of your employment then the copyright will most probably belong to your employer. The same can be true of funded projects. And watch out for collaborative websites and competitons who can in their terms and conditions 'strip' your copyright to themselves ... watch what you register or sign up for!
Copyright lasts for a long time - typically 70 years. BUT it's a bit different for different media. Check out the 'durations' for all the details. At the end of the period of copyright the work moves into the 'public domain' where anyone can use, adapt, copy, distribute or develop it without permission - for instcne an original text of a Shakespeare play (nearly 400 years old) can be freely reprinted, published or copied by anyone.
But it's not all about 'self' - it should also help other people by encouraging new work and helping to generate business, commodities, services and employment - in other words contributing to the economy and social well-being. Intellectual Property as a whole - patents, copyright and design rights - should help to increase and share knowledge, which was the original intention.
You create something original which you are proud of and value - what next?
Is it something that can be copyrighted? Does it fit one of the categories below?
Is it your original work?
Has it been fixed (written, performed, recorded, filmed, etc) or performed ?
Good idea to keep a record of when the work was created, fixed, performed. One idea is that you post a copy of the work to yourself in a sealed envelope which is dated but not opened unless you have to prove you were indeed the person who created it.
Have you physical (film, audio recording, etc) proof of your work? If it's a poem or a painting then it's already in a physical form. But what about a perfomance? a dance? a piece of theatre? a song? or a speech? Make a record, dated, on video or audio. This also applies to education activities such as presentations and lecture which are perfomances of a sort and often have original aspects; if so, record the event.
Have you said it’s your copyright on the work - film titles; title page of written work.
Have you added information to the work's metadata if it's a photo-image or video?
Have you said how you want other people to treat your work? (the licence) If you don't say they won't know! Is it 'all rights resevered; 'some rights reserved'; or free to use as long as you acknowledge the creator; or free to use.?
Have you credited other people who’ve helped or contributed?
If it's a group work, have you sorted out joint copyright and written down the agreement?
If you are in education the copyright on original work is yours, though the school may get prior parental permissions to publish school projects, etc.
Remember that if you do the work as part of employment then the copyright probably belongs to your employer.
You need to think through who you want to see, read or hear your work and whether you want to share it in some way or keep it behind a copyright wall. The decision can often be about striking a balance between maximising exposure and the benefits that brings against [potential] sales or longer-term gains.
Using digital technology and the Internet you can reach a world wide audience very quickly. It is also very easy for your work to become separated from your name and the information about the work.
Write your name onto the work whether it is a document, photograph or in the titles/credits to a film you have made. Unless you don't want to of course. AKA, alias, tags, avatars, etc can be an alternative - but the copyright is with the person (you) not a persona you've created.
Add a copyright symbol and your name and date: e.g. '© Your Name 2011' You will sometime see this used alongside the phrase 'All rights reserved' . This identifies your copyright and tells a 'user' they should contact you if they want to 're-use' the work in anyway, except for 'personal study'.
Write a terms and conditions of use statement to go with your copyright statement. You will see these used in many websites and everytime you buy some software or sign up to a web (cloud) service. However it can be tricky, and as you're not a legal expert take care what you write and if necessary take legal advice.
Use a Creative Commons Licence. This provides you with a choice of CC button to fit with your wishes - can people use your work in anyway, do you want your name to appear if they do, do you want people to use your work as long as its not for commercial use, etc. and a link to a legal description. Check out Creative Commons and other Open Licences here.
Include the copyright information in the metadata of your work when it's in a digital form. When you edit photography and film you, with some software can add information into the file about the work, its origin and its copyright. Some cameras have a facility for you to add a copyright statement to the images as you take them. Metadata should stay with the image to inform subsequent users and help people find your work; but it can also be removed through some automatic operations - like uploading images to some VLE - or purposefully by someone when they edit the work.
Take Care! Some websites that host and publish work like films for you, may include in their Terms and Conditions of Use their right to use your work without your permission. Make sure you read the small print before you sign-up and submit your work! This warning also applies, unfortunately, to some online competitions.
Hire a lawyer! If you are for instance, setting up a business, you might get advice on copyright, trade marks, etc to ensure you cover everything that's needed.
'Think Kit' is an introduction to some resources made for schools and tells you about Patents, Designs and Trade Marks as well as Copyright - all the things that are called 'Intellectual Property'. It also has a useful Glossary of terminology.
Download the 'Think Kit' - BTW it's only 7 pages and an easy read.