Poor Mans Copyright

Although intellectual property was established as a form of property, its intangibility makes it more difficult to protect from other types of property. This is why the copyright concept was introduced – giving exclusive rights (rights to copy, adapt and distribute) to creators of original work, with the proviso that the work must be established on a tangible medium and only for a certain period.  Copyright is now a form of property that you could trade, inherit or transfer.

The catch with copyrighting is that not all persons have the necessary finances, inclination or other resources to register and protect all of their original works with the relevant copyright authority. Enter the poor man’s copyright – a way to establish how long you possessed your work. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” It attempts to afford the ordinary person a simple and cheap method of proving that they possessed their original works before any third party that claims rights to the work in question.

== Steps in the poor man’s method ==

1. Seal the work that you wish to “copyright” in an envelope. With this method, you can copyright work that documented or stored in a tangible way (for example, music on CDs/ removable disks, scripts and designs).

2. Mail the envelope to yourself. Note that this does not involve merely placing the envelope in your mailbox. Instead, it involves lodging your self-addressed envelope with your country’s postal authority, thus ensuring that a recognized authority would stamp and date the envelope containing your sealed work. You can also label your work (particularly if you use this method regularly) and state your copyright claim on it to make it plausible.

3. Ensure that you do not open the envelope when it arrives (that might indicate that you hardly get mail anyway). In addition, you must keep the envelope unsealed and secured for when you need it – which would be whenever you need to prove that you owned the work since the postage date.

== Effectiveness of the poor man’s method ==

There is a saying that “cheap things are no good and good things are not cheap.” The poor man’s method can turn out to be no good – and not because of some conspiracy to fill the coffers of copyright authority either. The simple reason why the poor man’s method is not recognized in the United States, and is only a possible method of proof of copyright in the United Kingdom, is that it is unreliable. To go a bit further, it is unreliable because it can easily be faked.

Someone can go through the trouble of mailing themselves an empty envelope for purposes of faking the poor man’s copyright or tweak digital records to make it appear as though work was created at a certain date. For example, someone could take your article off the web, back-date their computer clock and digitally establish a record (through the Word Processor) that they created the article long before you did. Suppose they saved a “soft copy” of that bogus evidence on an old flash drive (to make it realistic) and placed it in the envelope they mailed to themselves in anticipation of their fraud. That is precisely why the poor man’s method is not effective in the United States.

== Official word on the poor man’s copyright ==

According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.” What this indicates is that a poor man’s copyright is not even necessary. In addition, the U.S. Copyright Office says this about the 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.”

According to the UK Intellectual Property Office, “Additionally, a creator could send himself or herself a copy by special delivery post (which gives a clear date stamp on the envelope), leaving the envelope unopened on its return (ensuring you also know what is inside each envelope in case you do this more than once).” However, they advise that an alternative could be lodging the work with a solicitor or bank. In the United Kingdom, the poor man’s copyright could possibly assist in defending your copyright.

== Conclusion ==

The method of mailing your own work to yourself is of dubious effectiveness, depending on your location. Indeed, you should note that international conventions on copyright indicate that copyright is automatic once work is reproduced in a tangible form. As such, having a poor man’s copyright can be superfluous and, in the U.S., not even recognized as reliable by the courts. However, it might be useful in deterring some third parties (with reputations to protect) from using your work illegally.