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I generate detailed notes throughout the school year to help out the students. Most of these notes are in the range of 30 - 50 pages.

I wonder if I should attempt to copyright my notes to ensure that it is not copied without attributing me as the creator.

If so, how can I go about doing this to the maximum effectiveness? As for now, all I am thinking is to place a copyright icon somewhere in the notes.

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    In countries that follow the Berne convention, which is most of them, your notes are already copyrighted as soon as you write them, and nobody has the right to copy them at all without your permission (with certain exceptions that vary between countries). – Nate Eldredge Dec 8 '18 at 3:24
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    @NateEldredge This should probably be an answer. – Austin Henley Dec 8 '18 at 3:27
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    I think the OP wants effectiveness in discouraging people from plagiarizing the notes, rather than make such plagiarism illegal. If so, the Berne convention is irrelevant. In my experience, the best discouragement is publicly posting the notes online somewhere; this way, if a teacher reuses them without attribution, students will easily find out (and they will notice -- I have seen at least one rant about a professor that mentioned his reuse of other people's notes as evidence for bad teaching here on academia.SE lately). – darij grinberg Dec 8 '18 at 3:30
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    @darij Grinberg that's another great answer. – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 8 '18 at 8:34
  • @NateEldredge This is true, but if the infringement is in the US, that automatic copyright is pretty much worthless. Per 17 USC 411, you generally have to register copyright before you can go to court to enforce it. – Geoffrey Brent Dec 9 '18 at 23:54
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Two misconceptions here:

  1. I need to "copyright" my intellectual property to protect it. - No. Unless you explicitly indicate otherwise, you already automatically get exclusive copyright to your notes. There is no "copyrighting" process like applying for a patent. The common "Copyright 2018" notice serves as a reminder of this, as well as suggesting a relevant entity to contact about getting permission and to pre-empt any arguments in court that "well it didn't say it was copyrighted". The last point is superfluous, since court would not require the copyright notice either way.

  2. Holding exclusive copyright physically prevents people from copying my intellectual property. - No. While unauthorized copying is illegal, the copyright is not a magic incantation. You still have to find unauthorized copiers, ask them to stop, then sue if they refuse.

So your copyright is only as good as the steps you're willing to take to enforce it. Will you spend your free time trying to track down people who copy your notes? Will you pay a lawyer to send letters to everyone who copies the notes without permission? Will you shell out hundreds or thousands in legal fees to sue when they refuse?

I'm guessing you're just hoping a scary sounding warning will discourage people. In this day and age, I doubt many would be discouraged. At best you could contact their institution (if they have one) and put pressure on them that way. But ultimately, what are you trying to protect here? A few students passing around copied notes? So what?

If you're thinking somebody will take the notes and use them to write a textbook and sell it for money, forget it. If they're planning to do that they can easily change your notes slightly and even if you had a case, you would have to waste horrendous amounts of time and money in court. If your notes are so great that they have non-trivial financial value on their own, just publish them yourself. Otherwise, stop worrying and move on with your life.

  • Your point #1 is technically true, but it needs a major qualifier. Under US law, although copyright is established automatically at creation, it's generally unenforceable unless you have paid to register that copyright with the US Copyright Office. Without registration, your copyright is pretty much worthless against US-based infringement. Cite: 17 USC S411: law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/411 – Geoffrey Brent Dec 9 '18 at 23:50
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From your post, it appears that you want to discourage people from plagiarizing the notes (i.e., copying them and passing them as their own), rather than make such plagiarism illegal (which, as @NateEldredge has observed in his comment, may already be the case if you do nothing). If so, the Berne convention is irrelevant. In my experience, the best discouragement is publicly posting the notes online somewhere; this way, if a teacher reuses them without attribution, students will easily find out (and they will notice -- I have seen at least one rant about a professor that mentioned his reuse of other people's notes as evidence for bad teaching here on academia.SE lately).

If you want to ensure that people can legally copy your notes with attribution but not without, then a good option is the CC BY license (or any other CC license more restrictive than that -- but I'd go with CC BY if this is your only issue).

[Comment extended to answer.]

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