That it would not be illegal has nothing to do with Louisa May Alcott's being dead. Margaret Mitchell is dead, too, but just try copying from Gone with the Wind and her estate's attorneys will be on you faster than you can say fiddle-dee-dee. Little Women is in the public domain; Gone with the Wind is still under copyright. But don't think the Mitchell estate will threaten to drag you to court for "plagiarism." They will sue you for copyright infringement, which is using a copyrighted work without permission.
Things were a little tricky in the old days, but since 1978 the U.S. copyright laws have been fairly straightforward. The moment you fix your work in tangible form, it is copyrighted. You don't have to do anything. You don't have to pay anything. The words you are reading right now have been under copyright protection since the moment I typed them. If you use them without my permission, that might constitute copyright infringement.
I don't even have to warn you that this blog post is copyrighted, although if you're viewing it in a feed reader, you'll see that I'm affixing a friendly reminder, that cute little C-with-a-circle-around-it, to the bottom of the post. But if you steal my stuff and I decide to haul you into court, I will have to register my copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office before I bring the suit. That registration is often erroneously called "obtaining" copyright. But again, I already hold the copyright to this work.
Here's how The U.S. Copyright Office explains it:
...copyright registration is a legal formality intended to make a public record of the basic facts of a particular copyright. However, registration is not a condition of copyright protection.
Registering a copyright is a simple and inexpensive procedure. The copyright holder or her representative simply fills out a form, then sends $45 and a copy of the work being registered to the U.S. Copyright office. (That work becomes a part of the collection of the Library of Congress.)
What about "poor man's copyright?" It's a ridiculous myth. Sealing your work in an envelope and mailing it to yourself but never opening the packet does not prove that you created the work, let alone that you created it before the postmarked date. You might very easily have sent yourself an empty, unsealed envelope and kept it handy. Then when you needed to "prove" a manuscript was in your possession before a certain date, you might simply have shoved the papers in and licked the already-postmarked envelope. The only thing "poor man's copyright" proves is that the people who advocate its use are idiots.
Writers' groups, especially those on the internet, are notorious for spreading that silly tip and other incorrect information about copyright. Recently I was surprised when a fellow romance novelist, someone who has also published a how-to-write book, advised a large group of published and aspiring novelists that anyone might quote "up to 300 words" of copyrighted material without getting permission from the copyright holder. That is patently untrue. There is no "safe" word limit in copyright law. Here's what the Copyright Office says about that:
Under the fair use doctrine of the U.S. copyright statute, it is permissible to use limited portions of a work including quotes, for purposes such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, and scholarly reports. There are no legal rules permitting the use of a specific number of words, a certain number of musical notes, or percentage of a work. Whether a particular use qualifies as fair use depends on all the circumstances.
Another copyright myth that is being propagated among writers and bloggers is that attributing a work to its author is a legitimate way of getting around that pesky "permission" thing. But quoting a poem and carefully noting its author's name will not protect you from an infringement lawsuit. So unless you're confident that what you're quoting constitutes "fair use" of a work, be sure to get permission or refrain from quoting the work.
Every writer and blogger should make at least one trip to the Copyright Office's official website. No, don't roll your eyes and sigh. Even though it's government-produced, the material on the site is not at all dry, difficult reading. Here's proof from their FAQ page:
How do I protect my sighting of Elvis?
Copyright law does not protect sightings. However, copyright law will protect your photo (or other depiction) of your sighting of Elvis. Just send it to us with a Form VA application and the filing fee. No one can lawfully use your photo of your sighting, although someone else may file his own photo of his sighting. Copyright law protects the original photograph, not the subject of the photograph.
Well. I guess I'd better hurry up and get that old film developed.