What is a “Poor Man’s Copyright”?

copyrighted stamp showing patent or trademarkThe other day a client asked this question:

Getting a copyright seems expensive. I can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars for lawyers and fees. Someone told me that I can get a “poor man’s copyright” by mailing my work to myself, then keeping the sealed envelope to prove when I created the work. It seems like this could save me some money. Is there any special way I need to do this to prove my copyright?

Sending a copy of your work to yourself via the mail is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” However, there is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration. Registration also doesn’t cost “hundreds of dollars.” An attorney may charge $300 or so to register a copyright, but there is no reason to hire a lawyer, as you can easily do it yourself.

Here is what you need to know about copyright and the poor man’s copyright.

Under current copyright law, copyright attaches as soon as you save the work in fixed form. That could mean saving your manuscript to a computer disk, printing a book, recording an audio, etc. It is advisable to include a copyright notice on the work, such as Copyright 2013 John Smith; however, this is not a legal requirement.

Although you have a copyright on any work you have created in fixed form, obtaining damages if someone infringes on your copyright requires that you file a lawsuit, and timely registration is critical to the success of your suit. According to Copyright.gov:

If a work is registered prior to infringement or within three months of publication, statutory damages will be available as an option for monetary relief, and the recovery for attorney’s fees may be available. In addition, a registration made before or within five years of publication of the work provides a presumption of the validity of the copyright and the facts stated within the registration certificate. A certificate of registration (or a rejection of an application for copyright) is a prerequisite for U.S. authors seeking to initiate a suit for copyright infringement in federal district court.

What this means is that you can not sue for copyright infringement unless you have registered the copyright with the copyright office. And the sooner you register, the better. Registering your copyright within three months of publication allows you to recover statutory damages and attorney’s fees from the infringer. There is no provision for bringing your envelope into court in lieu of registration.

Would mailing the work to yourself at least provide proof that you created the work? Not really. It is too easy to fake.

Registering a copyright only costs $35. Is protecting your work worth $35? Go to http://copyright.gov and register ownership of your copyright.