In U.S. law, copyright is the legal right to control certain uses of a work in order to maximize the benefits of that work. Under WashU's IP Policy (§3(b)(iii)), the creator retains ownership of all copyright in papers, theses and dissertations written as a student to earn credit in University courses or otherwise to satisfy University degree requirements.
Copyright exists from the moment your work is fixed in a tangible medium of expression, and persists regardless of whether or not you (1) include copyright notice, or (2) register a claim with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Though registration isn't required for protection, it does provide several important benefits:
Record-keeping function: Registration establishes a public record of the copyright claim, and pins down details about what rights have been claimed. E.g., authorship—identity of which is important given the general rule of duration (life of the author, plus 70 years). This also provides prima facie evidence of the validity of the copyright (if made before or within five years of publication).
Prerequisite for litigation: You cannot file a lawsuit for infringement until your certificate and original work are on file with the Copyright Office. Moreover you cannot claim statutory damages or attorney's fees unless your work was registered before the infringement began (or within three months of first publication). So you can't sue until after registration, and you won't receive much in damages for infringements that occur before you've done so.
If you file an electronic application with the USCO yourself, the fee is $35 (for "single authors who file an online claim for a single work that is not a work for hire"). The processing time for e-filing is generally 3-5 months.
eCO Registration System - File an original claim to copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. Online registration is the preferred way to register basic claims for literary works; visual arts works; performing arts works, including motion pictures; sound recordings; and single serials.
ProQuest also offers a service ($55) that completes all necessary registration steps, for students submitting theses or dissertations. If you chose to register copyright on your own, then there is no need to pay ProQuest to perform the same.
The advisability of registration depends on your individual circumstances. It is generally a good idea to register copyright if you are working on patentable research or other research which may have monetary or commercial value.
The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U.S. law, although it is often beneficial.
Notice for visually perceptible copies should contain all the following three elements:
The year of first publication of the work. In the case of compilations or derivative works incorporating previously published material, the year date of first publication of the compilation or derivative work is sufficient.