Member Rara Avis
Doreen, I saw your original thread but didn't respond because I really had nothing to add to what I've said in the past, merely a reiteration of what is posted in the FAQ at the main site.
Let me prelude with the usual - I ain't no lawyer and everything I say should be read with that in mind.
merlynh, I won't say you're talking about apples and oranges, but I definitely think you're talking about Washington versus Michigan apples! In other words - two very different things.
Copyright laws are clear. As of April 1, 1989, the instant you create something you own the copyright to it. A copyright symbol or declaration matters very little. You can post it at a thousand and one Internet sites, print copies and hand them out on a street corner - and the copyright is still yours, until and unless you explicitly place the work in the public domain. The only possible ambiguity you'll ever encounter is if another individual tries to claim they wrote the work before you did - and posting it on the Internet with a clear date can only help your case in matters like that. That's the law, both in the United States and (via treaties established at the Berne Convention) largely throughout the world.
First Rights, First North American Rights, Serial Rights, International Rights, Magazine Rights, Anthology Rights, Electronic Publication Rights - ad infinitum - have little to do with either the law or copyrights. Those are contractual terms. Several decades ago (say 30 or 40 years), when you sold a poem, story or article you were often literally selling (transferring) your copyright to the publisher. With the exception of reporters and newspapers, that is no longer true. Instead, they pay you for certain publication rights to your work, while you retain the copyright. And as in any licensing situation, those rights are both negotiable and subject to contractual interpretations.
What is a copyright? Legal intellectual protection - stronger and better protection than either patents or trademarks. What is First Rights? Anything the contract wants to say they are!
Let me put it in a different way, one that will perhaps shed more light on publication rights. There isn't a professional writer in the world that pays five to ten percent of his income to an agent because the agent is a good salesman. Publishers don't buy novels and editors don't buy poems because some sweet-talking agent took them to lunch and convinced them the work was good. They buy because the work IS good! So how does the agent earn their percentage if not through selling? By negotiating publication rights that are in the best interest of the author! That's their real job. They take the "standard" publishing contract and chop it into little pieces, retaining the UK rights 'cause they know another publisher over there, getting more money for the Anthology rights 'cause they're sure your poem or story is good enough to be included in such-and-such annual - generally just trying to negotiate you (and them) the best possible deal.
So what's it all mean? It means your copyright is safe! It's yours! It today's world scheme it would almost take an act of Congress to take it away from you against your will. Your Publication Rights, on the other hand, aren't even defined, except in the vaguest sense, until you get ready to sign a contract.