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Common Legal Myth: Poor Man's Copyright

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Intellectual property law can be confusing -- there are patents and trademarks and copyrights, all covering different kinds of ideas and inventions, and all with different legal standards for invoking that protection. For example, under current U.S. copyright law, registration of a work with the Copyright Office is not a prerequisite for copyright protection. But the most important part of copyright protections is proving that you came up with an original work first. So, how do you demonstrate the date of authorship if you ever need to?

One of the common myths surrounding IP rights is the so-called "poor man's copyright," a roundabout way to establish a date of possession for copyrightable works. But does it work, legally speaking?

As the federal Copyright Office explains: "The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a 'poor man's copyright.'" This could include dropping a draft of your screenplay in the registered mail to yourself, emailing an electronic copy of a song to yourself, or having a notary date a painting. In either case, the theory is that this would establish that the work has been in your possession since a particular date -- so just in case someone else comes along using your work or claiming it as their own, you would have a legally recognized date of possession preceding anyone else's.

There's just one problem: The poor man's copyright is not a legally recognized principle of IP protections. "There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection," according to the Copyright Office, "and it is not a substitute for registration."

It also seems like a waste of time, postage, or money if you're paying a notary. "The way the statute reads, pretty much the moment you have it fixed you've got copyright," copyright and property law professor at Washington and Lee University Law School Sally Wiant told Slate, explaining the principle that you don't need to register a work with the Copyright Office in order to gain copyright protection. "It's not even the poor man's copyright because even the poorest man, the minute he/she finishes something they've got protection."

So, before you go throwing stamps and your own address the next great American novel, rest assured that copyright law (and not a legal myth) is already on your side.

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