Does the “Poor Man’s Copyright” Really Work?

Copyright Registration or Poor Man’s Copyright?

Many authors, photographers, novelists, and other creative professionals swear by the “poor man’s copyright” method: mailing copies of their own works to themselves and leaving the envelope sealed, thus “proving” legal ownership over the enclosed material.

But does this really prove anything… or is the attempt simply a waste of money?

Copyright Protection is Automatic

When you create a song, a poem, a music video, a painting, or any other piece of copyrightable work, protection is automatic. You created it; you own it.

But there’s a rather conspicuous difference between owning certain rights and protecting those rights in court.

Copyright Registration is the Only Legal Proof Accepted In Court

According to the US Copyright Office’s “Copyright Basics” publication, there are definite advantages to registering officially (despite the fact that protection does not depend upon it), arguably the most important being that in case of copyright infringement, registrations for works that originated in the United States are required in order to bring a lawsuit.

Yes, you read that right: Without a copyright registration, you cannot sue someone for copyright infringement.

Another excellent reason to register sooner rather than later involves the potential payment of legal fees, in the event of a successful outcome in court; if the official registration does not take place before the infringement or within 3 months of publication, only actual damages can be rewarded (no statutory damages or legal fees).

Suddenly, the $35 registration fee proponents of the poor-man’s copyright try to avoid doesn’t seem to large and looming anymore.

Poor Man’s Copyright Not Supported by Law

One last nail in the coffin comes by way of the same publication:

“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.”

It’s clear that deciding to save money by choosing the poor-man’s copyright is a myopic view of reality, and that any rational look toward future finances supports a decision to officially register a copyright.