No, "Poor Man's Copyright" Does Not Exist

Illustration for article titled No, "Poor Man's Copyright" Does Not Exist

It sounds almost too good to be true: Instead of going through all the paperwork and hassle of registering a copyright, all you have to do is send your work to yourself by mail to be protected. It's called "poor man's copyright" and there's only one problem with the process. It doesn't exist.


In response to this post on the 10 things people keep getting wrong about intellectual property, a discussion began about one of the most persistent myths: "Poor man's copyright", and just where it might have come from:


11) I can email myself a copy of my book (or property claim to an asteroid) and that has some magical legal force. I've seen that a few times before.


It's an incarnation of a very old misconception that you can snail-mail yourself a copy of your manuscript and, since the post office has date-stamped the material, a federal office would then have "recognized" copyright, as long as you kept the manuscript sealed in the envelope. If a legal kerfuffle arose later, the belief was you could present the sealed manuscript as evidence that it was your original work as of that date (at which point, of course, the court would break the seal and see the original document). This was known as a form of "poor person's registration" and was a ridiculously widespread for a long time.

Regardless of the method of sending — either using some kind of web-based system of tubes or the postal service's combined network of ponies and stagecoaches — the Library of Congress's Copyright Office is clear on exactly how valid the practice is: Not at all.

The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a "poor man's copyright." There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

On the plus-side, though, they also note that, even before you've officially registered for copyright, you're still protected by copyright laws, which they note kick in "the moment the work is created."

So, if the bad news is that the "poor man's copyright" doesn't work, the good news is you never really needed it anyway.


Image: aspen rock / shutterstock



Okay, realizing that this system offers no protections under actual copyright law . . . my understanding was that, rather than being some sort of magical protective force, it simply created compelling evidence of the provenence of a particular IP at a given moment in time.

"The Life and Times of Antipodes" (truly a classic, btw, complete with electrifying car chases and running away from burning baby carriages), "mailed" to myself on 1/1/2010, provides a strongly credible state of development, something I can point to if some shady publishing exec trawled the manuscript off my hard drive while I was innocently surfing on a public network and decides to publish it as a barely-fictionalized novelization.

Or, if I take on a writing partner and we later disagree as to the extent of contributions—my sealed envelope shows that, prior to engaging in the partnership, parts X and Y of the story were in place to Nth degree.

Precisely how wrong am I?

(See? I just *asked* if I was wrong on the internet. That's going in chapter 43: In Which Antipodes Lives Dangerously)