Think a “Poor-Man’s Copyright” Will Secure Your Rights to Your Book? Think Again

    Think the Poor Man's Copyright is a substitute to copyright registration? Think again!

    A Poor Man’s Copyright is no substitute for copyright registration.

    Widely referred to as a “poor-man’s copyright,” the act of mailing a copy of your own book or manuscript to yourself and leaving the package sealed is widely purported to be legal proof that you own the copyright to the enclosed—a sneaky way of getting around having to actually register with the US Copyright Office.

    Since you automatically own the copyright to anything you create, this dated and sealed envelope should be all the legal proof you need of your copyright ownership . . . right?

    Why the Poor Man’s Copyright Is the Wrong Choice

    Perhaps not. Let’s look at a few holes in this logic and consider whether it may be a better idea to register your copyright right away—or at least before you publish your book.

    A “Poor Man’s Copyright” Would Only Save About $13

    Assuming Express Mail with a delivery signature required (for optimum “legality,” right?), you could spend around $22 with the USPS to mail your work to yourself. Keeping in mind that a copyright registration costs only $35, is it really worth trying to circumvent registration and ending up with legal “proof” not officially sanctioned by copyright law?

    Copyright Registration Has Important Practical Benefits

    When you register your copyright with the USCO, you do far more than secure your legal rights. You’re entered into a public database, where anyone with commercial interest in your book (read: $$$) can easily find your contact information.

    Compare this with the poor-man’s copyright method, where the only person who knows how to contact you about your work is your postal delivery person—who may or may not be interested in or financially prepared to subsidize a big-screen treatment or your book.

    A “Poor-Man’s Copyright” Isn’t Legal Proof of Anything

    Here’s the general idea: you write a book, and before you publish it, you mail it to yourself and leave the package unsealed. Then, once the book has been published, someone infringes on your work, so you sue them over the infringement, planning to unveil your sealed and postmarked package—which shows a date prior to the infringement—in the courtroom with a dramatic flair.

    With the "poor man's copyright," a dated postmark on a sealed envelope proves copyright ownership . . . or does it?

    Anyone can mail an empty envelope to themselves and seal it later.

    There are two problems with this. The first: The only thing a sealed and postmarked package proves is that the USPS is functioning properly. It does not prove that you own the material enclosed. Why? Consider this: I show up in the same courtroom and disrupt your proceedings by unveiling my own sealed and postmarked package—which carries a date even earlier than your own!

    Does this mean I wrote the book? Of course not. All it means is that I was conniving enough to mail myself an empty package years ago, just waiting for the opportunity to seal it at a later date and crash a lawsuit.

    The second problem comes right from the US Copyright Office:

    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.

    Good luck convincing yourself into court on those grounds!

    Delaying Proper Copyright Registration Ends Up Costing More

    Those who don’t realize a poor man’s copyright isn’t effective until after someone tries to take credit for it may eventually decide to register their copyrights. And there’s no legal problem with registering later (although there are definite benefits to official registration).

    But by this point in time, you’re likely in a bit of a hurry, so you’ll probably want to expedite your copyright registration so you don’t have to wait six months or more to file your lawsuit.

    If this is the case, you’re going to wish you bothered to spend the $35 when you could have—rush copyright registration costs $760, and since you waited so long, you won’t even get to recover legal fees.

    Register Your Copyright With the USCO Before Infringement Strikes

    While individual intellectual property owners themselves must determine what is best for their situation, hopefully along with input from an intellectual property attorney, it’s clear that waiting until after copyright infringement to register is a risky move—and that despite what you may have heard, the “poor man’s copyright” is completely ineffective as legal proof of ownership.

    Register your copyright today—even though it costs money (albeit a relatively small amount compared to an infringement suit)—if you think you might someday be a victim of copyright infringement. You may find it’s too expensive not to.

    [Click&Copyright can help you register your copyright!]

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