When does copyright protection begin? Unfortunately, this simple question doesn't have a simple answer; it's an answer dependent on when the item is published and protected, and it may be subject to change.
Copyright laws change.
Since early copyright protection began, copyright laws have undergone several different incarnations. These different versions of copyright laws mean that copyright protection begins at different points during different eras. Before you can determine when copyright protection begins, you have to know when a work is published and whether or not it is copyright protected.
Works from 2002 to date.
Any original works of authorship from 2002 to the present are automatically copyright protected from the moment of their creation. You may still register a copyright in order to establish the date of copyright protection and provide better protection against copyright infringement, but it's not necessary to register a copyright in order for a work to be protected.
Works between 1989 and 2002.
Works created after 1977 are automatically copyright protected as of 1989. Works created before 1978 but published during this era are copyrighted at the date of publication.
Works from 1978 to 1989.
Works created during this period are copyright protected as of the date of publication with notice. If works were published without notice during this period, they weren't copyright protected, although the 1989 change in copyright laws altered that and makes these works automatically protected. Works created before 1978 but published during this period with notice are copyright protected from the date of publication.
Works between 1964 and 1977.
Works published between 1964 and 1977 with notice are copyright protected. Works published during this era without copyright protection notice are not copyrighted.
Works between 1923 and 1964.
Works published during this period are protected only with notice and with a renewal of copyright protection. If works published during this period didn't have their copyright protection renewed, they are no longer protected by copyright.
Works published between 1923 and 1964 without notice.
Works published between 1923 and 1964 without notice are not copyright protected, and never were. These works are considered a part of the public domain.
Works published before 1923.
Works published before 1923 are not copyright protected. Any copyright eligibility is expired on these works, and they are considered a part of the public domain.
Copyright and public domain.
Works that are a part of the public domain are not eligible for copyright protection. These works have already been copyrighted and the copyright has expired, or they were never eligible for copyright protection due to the manner in which they were published. Even if you use public domain works in an original work of your own, you cannot copyright protect the part of your work that is in the public domain.
Curious what is not protected by copyright? Copyright protection involves many variables, and not everything is eligible for copyright. What is, and what isn't?
Wondering when does a copyright expire? As copyright laws change, so, too, do copyright expiration dates, so you'll need to know the specifics of when a work is copyrighted in order to determine when it expires.