A creative work is automatically protected by copyright from the moment it is created. It is not necessary to register a work with the U.S. Copyright Office for it to be protected. Doing so nevertheless provides benefits to the owner. Most importantly, registration is a prerequisite for being able to file a federal lawsuit alleging copyright infringement. Another benefit is statutory damages: the law provides for automatic damages for infringement and attorneys' fees without the owner having to prove in court the value of the infringement. Registration also gives notice to the world that the work is copyrighted and who the owner of that work is.
Registration can be done via the Copyright Office's website or by mailing paper forms. The Copyright Act requires that copies of the work being registered be deposited with the Copyright Office. The Copyright Office has issued a publication detailing the mandatory deposit requirements.
The electronic registration website, eCO, is here. The Copyright Office has produced a PDF tutorial on how to use the electronic system. The tutorial shows screen-by-screen how the system works and what information is needed to complete the registration. The following categories of works can be registered electronically: literary works, works of visual arts, sound recordings, works of performing arts, motion picture and audiovisual works, and serials (e.g. magazines and newspapers). The registration fees can be paid by credit card, debit card, ACH transfer, or deposit account with the Copyright Office. The system allows users to upload the deposit copies required by law or to print out a mailing label to submit physical copies to the Copyright Office.
The Copyright Office's paper registration forms are available on its website. Form TX is used for literary works, which includes novels, non-fiction, poetry, computer programs, and textbooks. Form PA is used for performing arts works, including plays, motion pictures, dances, and musical compositions. Form VA is for visual works, including photographs, sculptures, paintings, charts, maps, technical drawings, and globes. Form SR is for sound recordings. Form SE is used to register serials such as newspapers and magazines. All the forms contain detailed instructions on how to complete them. The deposit copies must be submitted with the paper forms. The registration fees can be paid by check or money order.
Registering online is significantly cheaper than using paper forms. Under the current fee schedule (also available as a PDF), registering a single work for a new copyright online with a single author who is also the copyright owner costs $45; all other filings online are $65. Using the paper forms costs $125.
The Copyright Office has a publication giving tips for filing copyright registrations.