(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
Poor man’s copyright refers to the practice of an author placing their work in an envelope and mailing it to themselves. This will give the author a sealed envelope with a postmark on it giving the date it went through the postal system. The idea is that if copyright is disputed, the sealed, dated envelope can be used as proof that the work contained inside it is the author’s own and that it had been created by a certain date. However, there are no instances in US legal history where poor man’s copyright has been used to successfully prove ownership in a court of law.
Copyright is automatically established when the author creates an original and tangible piece of work, on paper, on tape or electronically. The work is protected under the Berne Convention, Article 2 (2), in any country that is a signatory to the convention. This includes all major countries and most of the smaller ones. Works covered include nearly all writing, as well as music, software and paintings. This means there is no need to try and protect one’s work through poor man’s copyright. However, in countries without a copyright office, mailing oneself may be seen as having some advantages in certain situations.
The main problem with poor man’s copyright is that it is by no means foolproof and is in fact quite easy to fake. There is usually nothing to stop someone sending themselves an empty unsealed envelope through the postal system. When the envelope arrives, the recipient can place anything they like in the envelope, including their own work or someone else’s. They then seal the envelope and can claim that the work was there before the date of the postal mark. Even a CD can be placed in an open envelope that already has a date stamp on it, and claimed as one’s own. This can be done by setting the computer clock a day or two before the stamp, and then burning the CD before putting it in the envelope and sealing it. But in any case, an envelope sealed in the first instance can be steamed open. Further, a date stamp can smudge or be unreadable from the start.
Most countries have no copyright office, making it potentially difficult to prove who has copyright and the date the work was created. Several government sites advise that as an option, authors could mail their work to themselves to help show copyright ownership. Even the UK’s Intellectual Property Office recommends the option of mailing oneself by special delivery so that a date stamp clearly appears on the envelope. Alternatives to mailing oneself include depositing work with a notary public, solicitor’s office, bank or taxation office. These methods are often included in a definition of poor man’s copyright, although they can be much more costly than mailing a letter, and may still not be proof of ownership.
In countries with a copyright office, registering one’s work is far preferable to relying on poor man’s copyright. The cost is more than using the mail, but registration has definite advantages over poor man’s copyright and can end up much cheaper in the event of legal action. Copyright details are on public record and the author has a certificate. In the US, if an author registers their work no more than five years after publication, it automatically qualifies as evidence in court. In the event of a successful court case, the author can get legal fees and statutory damages paid. Registration fees are quite reasonable. For example, basic online registration with the US Copyright Office costs $35. At the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, the fee is $50.