Illustration for article titled No, Poor Mans 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

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