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Dismantling The 'Poor Man's Copyright' Lie

by Greer | Content Lead | Writing Tips | Editing and Publishing

Hollywood adores the drama of it: the courtroom waits with bated breath as a latecomer runs down the aisle, envelope in hand. The date stamp is read aloud, and the judge peels open the glued flap. He gasps - the penniless writer was right -she did write it first! The draft of her novel is pulled out and waved in front of the lying thief who tried to steal her work. Justice and truth has won out, thanks to a previously-sealed envelope and a little forethought. Sadly, this doesn't translate to the real world.



Debunking the Myth


A Poor Man’s Copyright: Mailing a copy of your writing, postmarked, to yourself only to be opened in the event someone tries to plagiarise your work. For a starving writer with no financial means of having a professional officially tie your work to your name, this was believed to be a stable solution if someone was to steal your work and claim they wrote it first. A wonderful thought, but sadly not real. Admittedly, for a long time I too believed this to be a damning piece of evidence to present in a court of law if someone tried to steal my intellectual property. After all, who can argue with a dated sealed envelope? Well...turns out, many people. In fact, though different countries may consider it as helpful ‘exhibits’, chances are your country puts very little credence on it as evidence. Why? Quite simply, it is surprisingly easy to fake. Who would know if you sent an empty postmarked envelope, steamed it open, slotted in a version of the writing under your name, and re-sealed? And that is just one way you could falsify the ownership. With there being numerous ways to fake it, it if a flimsy safety net for legal protection.


'Don't be fooled; the process will not yield you an enforceable copyright. And a copyright isn't much good if you can't bring suit to enforce it. In short, don't believe the rumors. Mailing yourself a copy of your creative work might feel like a clever workaround of the legal system, but in fact, you might be shooting yourself in the foot.'

- Brian Farkas, US Attorney



But wait! For those worried that their work is then free for the taking, not in any way their property, I do not bring just gloom. Fortunately, such as in the UK and USA, you are automatically protected legally the moment you finish writing a piece of work. There’s no need to do anything else in the majority of cases. The moment you create something, the law automatically sees it as yours and is immediately protected. Now, hold on, what if someone steals my work and pretends they wrote it first? I hear you. There are some additional measures you can take to safeguard your intellectual property:


  • Check the copyright laws in your country - know your rights.


  • Upload a small portion of your work (e.g. a page of a story) to a reputable website that will also display the date of uploading. DO NOT GO BACK AND EDIT ANYTHING - it may change the publishing date.


  • Register your work with an appropriate, trustworthy company or organisation in your country.


  • My UK brethren, rejoice! The 'poor man's copyright' of mailing yourself your own work has seen a little success in British courts. It couldn't hurt.


  • Draw up confidentiality contracts for those likely to see your pre-published work. Fellow writers will likely understand your protectiveness and respect it enough to sign, and non-writers will probably assume this is standard procedure.


As most modern writers using electronic tools to create their works, there are more and more methods of demonstrating ownership than ever before. Automatic copyright is becoming the norm, removing the need to actively do anything beyond saving your work. Any intellectual property thief risks having multiple online and technological data tumbling down on their claims. This happy reality doesn't mean we should be letting everyone in on our writing - after all, stealing does still happen - but we can bypass the stress by just taking some sensible precautions.


Hollywood adores the drama of it: the courtroom waits with bated breath as a latecomer runs down the aisle, envelope in hand. The date stamp is read aloud, and the judge peels open the glued flap. He gasps - the penniless writer was right -she did write it first! The draft of her novel is pulled out and waved in front of the lying thief who tried to steal her work. Justice and truth has won out, thanks to a previously-sealed envelope and a little forethought. Sadly, this doesn't translate to the real world.



Debunking the Myth


A Poor Man’s Copyright: Mailing a copy of your writing, postmarked, to yourself only to be opened in the event someone tries to plagiarise your work. For a starving writer with no financial means of having a professional officially tie your work to your name, this was believed to be a stable solution if someone was to steal your work and claim they wrote it first. A wonderful thought, but sadly not real. Admittedly, for a long time I too believed this to be a damning piece of evidence to present in a court of law if someone tried to steal my intellectual property. After all, who can argue with a dated sealed envelope? Well...turns out, many people. In fact, though different countries may consider it as helpful ‘exhibits’, chances are your country puts very little credence on it as evidence. Why? Quite simply, it is surprisingly easy to fake. Who would know if you sent an empty postmarked envelope, steamed it open, slotted in a version of the writing under your name, and re-sealed? And that is just one way you could falsify the ownership. With there being numerous ways to fake it, it if a flimsy safety net for legal protection.


'Don't be fooled; the process will not yield you an enforceable copyright. And a copyright isn't much good if you can't bring suit to enforce it. In short, don't believe the rumors. Mailing yourself a copy of your creative work might feel like a clever workaround of the legal system, but in fact, you might be shooting yourself in the foot.'

- Brian Farkas, US Attorney



But wait! For those worried that their work is then free for the taking, not in any way their property, I do not bring just gloom. Fortunately, such as in the UK and USA, you are automatically protected legally the moment you finish writing a piece of work. There’s no need to do anything else in the majority of cases. The moment you create something, the law automatically sees it as yours and is immediately protected. Now, hold on, what if someone steals my work and pretends they wrote it first? I hear you. There are some additional measures you can take to safeguard your intellectual property:


  • Check the copyright laws in your country - know your rights.


  • Upload a small portion of your work (e.g. a page of a story) to a reputable website that will also display the date of uploading. DO NOT GO BACK AND EDIT ANYTHING - it may change the publishing date.


  • Register your work with an appropriate, trustworthy company or organisation in your country.


  • My UK brethren, rejoice! The 'poor man's copyright' of mailing yourself your own work has seen a little success in British courts. It couldn't hurt.


  • Draw up confidentiality contracts for those likely to see your pre-published work. Fellow writers will likely understand your protectiveness and respect it enough to sign, and non-writers will probably assume this is standard procedure.


As most modern writers using electronic tools to create their works, there are more and more methods of demonstrating ownership than ever before. Automatic copyright is becoming the norm, removing the need to actively do anything beyond saving your work. Any intellectual property thief risks having multiple online and technological data tumbling down on their claims. This happy reality doesn't mean we should be letting everyone in on our writing - after all, stealing does still happen - but we can bypass the stress by just taking some sensible precautions.


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