The Poor Man’s Copyright
It may sound wonderful in theory, but here’s why the “poor man’s copyright” is wrong, stupid & doesn’t work.
This ridiculous myth does the rounds every once in a while, showing up on design blogs, forums and even the occasional “serious” business site. According to WikiHow, copyrighting your artwork is no-big-deal, costs 50 cents and merely requires an envelope and postage. It’s known as the “poor man’s copyright”. Here’s their skinny –
1. Write your document. It can be anything, a poem, a book, anything.
Almost right but not quite. It can’t be “anything”.
2. Seal two separate copies of your document in 2 comfortable sized envelopes securely and properly. Make sure the envelope is durable.
A tough envelope is good.
3. Mail the document to yourself. Yes, yourself! Make sure the wording is clear and that you put the title of your document at the top.
4. When your documents arrive back, do not open them! Do not! No! Not ever! Keep them for your records. The point of the poor man’s copyrighting is for legal purposes. Your document has been marked by the post office, which has the only official, unbiased dating information that cannot be argued against. Keep your unopened envelopes until the last possible moment. Afterwards, in the case that you might have to sue for copied work, that evidence must be handed to the judge. Opening it beforehand will only taint it and will make it harder to claim your rightful ownership. Hopefully, it will never get to that point
Sounds great and all, but only one small problem. They. Are. Flat. Out. Wrong.
How it’s supposed to work.
The thought behind the process is that the US Post Office (as an official representative of the feds – itself questionable) has now ‘date stamped’ your artwork, proving once and for all the date that you’re claiming copyright. You can then put this unopened letter in a safe place, only to be opened as an ‘ah-ha’ moment in a court battle with the unscrupulous hack who’s pinched your work. Must admit, it appears pretty sound. Trouble is, it probably won’t work, as your legal opponent will be able to prove quite readily in court that a poor man’s copyright can be faked (thus rendering it’s legal value moot). How?
Breathtakingly simple actually.
Why it doesn’t work.
You can send a registered letter to yourself in an unsealed envelope, and then place whatever you want in the envelope and then seal it.
Any lawyer worth their salt could argue this in court and if that’s all you got, your ownership rights are sunk. It’s highly unlikely that any judge would be willing to accept this as evidence of anything other than your ability to send a letter to your home address. Here’s what the US Copyright Office has to say on the matter in their series of copyright FAQs –
I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright.” What is it?
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.
Snopes debunks the poor man’s copyright here (while noting that this method may be of some assistance in the UK, although the page that originally made that statement – on the UK Patent Office web site – has disappeared.) Considering that you can officially register a copyright with the US Government for $45 a pop, using the ‘poor man’s’ method is only going to save you a few bucks anyway.
Why you should officially copyright your work
While copyright is usually automatic upon artwork creation (there are some exceptions – a “work for hire” agreement for example,) there are some fairly valid reasons for shelling out forty-five bucks. Again, from the Copyright Office web site –
Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within 5 years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.
Bottom line, if you register your copyright with the feds, you can seek damages as well as injunctive relief.
Other methods of proving creation date.
There are other waps of proving copyright and more importantly date of claim – publication in a dated periodical (newspaper, magazine, etc) for example – and every use of your artwork accrues additional ownership and ability to prove when you created the artwork (ie: before the person who ripped it). For more on copyright, here’s a brief overview that ties things up pretty nicely.
Oh yeah – before I forget: IANAL (I am not a lawer) so any legal info presented here is worth exactly what you paid for it.