Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Poor Man's Copyright? Don't Waste Your Stamp.

Kathryn Page Camp

I just read an Internet article at Crafty House titled “3 Easy Ways Writers Can Protect Their Work From Copyright Infringement,” and it irritated me. Why? Because one of the three suggestions is the so-called “poor man’s copyright,” which I believe gives false comfort.
Before I explain, you should understand how someone gets a copyright. The copyright is created the minute the author puts the work into tangible form. If it stays in your head, you don’t have a copyright. But once you transfer it to a sheet of paper or save it on your computer, you do. Registration is not required, nor is a copyright symbol, although both have their uses.
The poor man’s copyright—or the poor man’s postal copyright as it is sometimes called—is the practice of mailing your manuscript to yourself. It probably doesn’t go as far back as the Pony Express, but it’s almost that old. The idea is that the postmark will prove that you wrote it on or before the date on the postmark. Then if someone else publishes the material before you do, you can prove that you had already created it. That’s the theory, anyway. Unfortunately, I can think of a dozen ways to discredit that evidence in court. In any event, the poor man’s copyright is not even a copyright. All it does is provide shaky evidence that the person who mailed it may have written the material.
And if the concern is protecting information you have published on the Internet, the easiest way to prove that you got there first is to print off the Internet posting, complete with the date at the bottom of the page. While that evidence can be manufactured, too, it tends to be more reliable.
So what else can you do to protect your material? First, use a copyright notice. It doesn’t have to be on every single posting if the site itself contains an adequate notice, such as the one on this blog. A copyright notice won’t stop all intentional infringers, but most people who use someone else’s work do it out of ignorance. They simply don’t realize that the material is copyrighted. A notice will tell them that it is.
Federal copyright registration is not necessary, but it does have advantages. For one thing, you cannot sue for copyright infringement unless the material is registered. Registration also provides a legal presumption that the person who registered it first is the copyright owner. The presumption can be rebutted, but it is much stronger evidence than a postmark.
Before I go, I would like to comment on another suggestion in the Internet article. (Suggestion number 2 was to include a copyright notice, which I agree with.) That other suggestion is to register for a Creative Commons license. There are many different Creative Commons licenses, but all of them provide permission for others to use your work in one way or another as long as you receive the credit. If that works for you, fine, although you should read all of the licenses carefully before chosing one. But if you want to keep strict control over use, then a Creative Commons registration is not for you.
Nothing can eliminate all infringement, especially in this Internet world. There are steps you can take to make it less likely, but the poor man’s copyright is not one of them.  
I took the photograph of the Pony Express stables in 2013 while we were on vacation in St. Joseph, Missouri. It is © 2013 by Kathryn Page Camp.
Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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