The Myth of Poor Manís Copyright
Written on: August 25, 2006
There are many, many myths people hold about copyright law. However, the most dangerous by far is the myth of poor man's copyright (PMC).
It is the worst kind of myth. It is wasteful, achieves nothing, gives a false sense of protection and can leave good people more vulnerable than if they had done nothing at all. There is simply no way that poor man's copyright is a valid strategy for protecting one's work.
Yet, even today, it is widely preached, especially in comments to blog posts, and the myth has continued to spread. It is time to put it to rest once and for all. Simply put, the myth is so outrageous that it can not withstand even the slightest scrutiny and would crumble like a sand castle in a court of law.
What is Poor Man's Copyright?
The idea is simple. You create a work, be it a written piece, a photograph, a drawing or a CD, and decide that you can't afford or don't want to pay the U.S. Copyright Office fees to register your work formally. So, rather than send your work to Uncle Sam, you put it in a nice, shiny envelope and mail it to yourself. Upon its return it has both your name and a nice date stamp, proof positive that the work belonged to you on that date and was created before that.
You spend less than a dollar and get proof positive of both the date the work was created and who the owner is. All you have to do is keep the envelope in a safe place and never open it up.
The theory from there goes as follows. In the event of a later copyright dispute, you take this sealed envelope with you to court and open it up in front of the jurors, judge and gallery proving that the work is yours. One hopes that there is no way they can lose a copyright case with such solid evidence on their side.
Unfortunately though, both the case and evidence are weaker than thought. In fact, both might turn out to be worth nothing at all.
Unicorns, Leprechauns and Poor Man's Copyright
The problems start early for PMC. Simply placing a work into an envelope and mailing it to yourself does not prove ownership. You sign no forms, make no statements and offer no proof of creation. People mail things that they do not hold the copyright to all of the time and the courts know that.
Second, envelopes can be steamed open and postmarks can be smudged, altered or unreadable. While you can mitigate those by sending the document special delivery, which offers better sealing envelopes and clearer postmarks, it is more expensive and likely can't be done from home.
Then, in the courtroom, things don't get any better. First off, the court room will not be a federal one, but a state one. Since you didn't register your work, you can not sue in federal court and, thus, will only be eligible to receive either the amount the infringement made or the amount you lost, whichever is greater. Sadly, in many, if not most, copyright matters that amount is equal to exactly zero.
However, the worst news is that most copyright cases don't center around issues of authorship. They center around matters of fair use, contract disputes and unauthorized duplication. While plagiarism is rampant, as this site shows, it is generally simple to find out who the original author was and it is unlikely that PMC would be needed to prove that. Furthermore, especially in the Internet age, if a dispute of authorship should arise, the delay in receiving back the envelope would likely make PMC harmful to the case since such infringement happen with a matter of minutes, not days.
In short, your proof would likely arrive and be dated AFTER the infringement took place, providing no aid to your case and, possibly, helping the plagiarist.
In the end, all PMC does is give you weak evidence to take to a smaller courtroom and present a potentially damaged case centering around unrelated issues. Most copyright holders would be better off doing nothing at all than trying to take advantage of PMC.
This is probably why, to date, no case in the history of the U.S. has been aided by PMC and, most likely, none ever will.No U.S. federal law actually recognizes poor manís copyrights for any purpose, including proof of ownership or creation date. No court has ever accepted a poor manís copyright as individual evidence of an authorís copyright ownership.