Maybe you heard about something called a “poor man’s copyright” in a writer’s group, on an internet forum or from your college English teacher. It refers to a method of copyright protection that involves mailing a copy of your work to yourself and leaving it unopened, in order to establish both the date of its creation and ownership.
The idea behind this method is that if you ever need to prove that you created the work in question, you can use the unopened envelope with the postmark as evidence in court that the work is really yours. While this method may seem like a simple and inexpensive way to protect your work, it is neither reliable nor effective. It’s just a very pervasive myth.
It Doesn’t Prove What You Probably Think
The date on the postmark only proves that the envelope was mailed on that date – not that the contents of the envelope were created on that date. The method also does not establish ownership of the work, since you could potentially mail yourself a copy of someone else’s original work in order to try to claim ownership rights.
Technically, you hold the copyright to any original work the moment that you create it – but that doesn’t mean you’re well-protected. The most effective way to protect your work from misappropriation, theft or abuse is to register it with the U.S. Copyright Office.
This provides a legal record of your ownership of the work – and it also gives you the right to sue someone for infringement and either actual or statutory damages when your work is used without your consent. The statutory damage rule means that you do not have to prove actual losses as a result of the infringement to obtain compensation.
While the poor man’s copyright method may seem like an easy and inexpensive way to protect your work and “better than nothing,” it is always best to learn more about intellectual property rights from an experienced professional.