What is a poor man’s copyright for Crafters, Artists and Festival Vendors?

November 2010
What is a poor man's copyright?

The Poor Man's Copyright is a bit of a myth in that it is not actually worth anything more than a false sense of security for the possessor of the material.

Why do I say it is a false sense of security? Because if you were to try to actually prove that you had created a work using the poor man's copyright, you would quickly learn that it is so unreliable that I know of no instances where it has ever been successfully used to prove copyright of any work.

So, if you do desire to use the Poor Man's Copyright, how do you do it?

  • Complete your work and place it into an envelope. Seal the envelope and address it to yourself.
  • Mail the sealed envelope with your work inside of it to yourself.
  • When you get the envelope back, leave it sealed and put it away in a safe location in case you ever need it.


Now, the first flaw that one might see in this procedure is that it would be very easy for someone to mail themselves an empty envelope. Once it is returned to them they can set it aside to wait until they have something to place inside of it. This allows a copyright to be falsified by days, weeks, even years.

A logical solution to that might be to burn a disk on the date that you seal it into the envelope so that you can have the Post Office stamp the post mark for the same day as the disk's time stamp. This too is a flawed system. You could easily mail yourself a blank disk in an unsealed envelope which would be ready to have a new disk placed into it when you want to.

Ah, you say, but the time stamp! This too is easily overcome. There was once a time when software relied on the computer's internal clock to let it know when a trial period had expired. It was fairly common knowledge that someone could evade this expiration date by setting the computer's clock to a past date when the software was still within its trial period.

This same technique can be used when burning a disk to trick the computer into burning a disk that has a date from the past burned onto it.

This would obviously be a technique that would be best used within a few days or months rather than years, but it is still a easy go-around on falsifying a document using the poor man's copyright.

So, if this is such an unreliable means of copyrighting ones work, where did it originate?

I'm not sure. I have looked around online, and the answers to this vary widely. I heard about the poor man's copyright years ago when I first started writing, so it has been around since the dark ages, but where exactly it originated seems to be a bit shadowy.

Is it ever a good idea to use the poor man's copyright? It at least cannot hurt, however, do not rely on it should you ever need to prove ownership in a court of law.

If you have a work that you truly fear someone might infringe on, then you are better off to look into the copyright laws in your area and file for a true copyright for the work. It is nowhere near as costly as it could later be should your fears prove true and all you possess is a poor man's copyright.

What if you simply cannot afford to pay for a copyright and want some piece of mind? Possible alternatives to the poor man's copyright I can think of include:

  • Ask if the post office can make a second stamp over the back of the envelope where it is sealed to prove that the envelope was sealed when they received it.
  • Take your material to a notary public and ask them to witness the material being placed into the envelope and sealed. Stamp the first page of written work and any photographs of works of art or other materials that are non-written. Some banks offer members free notary public services.
  • If you have a lawyer, ask them if you can mail the document to them for safe keeping in your legal file.


What is not reliable?

Mailing a copy to a friend or relative, since this is an easily compromised envelope that is no more proof than had you mailed it to yourself.

Placing it into a safe deposit box or other secure location where you might claim not to have accessed it since it was put there. There is no real proof in such cases that you did not access the envelope in question.

Current fees for registration of copyright can be found at fees.html. The copyright office states:

"... Please be advised that there is no provision in the copyright law or the practices of the Copyright Office regarding any type of protection known as the "poor man's copyright." The mere act of placing a copy in the mail addressed to oneself does not secure statutory copyright protection for the work, nor will it serve as a substitute for registration of a claim to copyright in this Office in terms of legal and evidentiary value. ..."

My final advice? If you are honestly concerned for your copyright, then you should register it with the copyright office, however, you should know that it is not an essential step and you should do careful research into what you would gain through copyrighting a work before you worry too much about it.


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