The Poor Man’s Copyright is one of those apocryphal ideas that almost, but not quite, rises to the status of urban legend (unfortunately, it’s not as scary as exploding toilets). I have encountered many otherwise sophisticated authors who not only believe in this charming fantasy, but also practice it.
Here’s the idea: Whenever you send a submission to an editor or agent, you always should seal the manuscript in an envelope, mail it to yourself, and then keep the sealed and postmarked envelope in a safe place (a bank vault, or the bottom of your freezer, will do nicely) until someone challenges your ownership. On that day, you break open the envelope and triumphantly prove your ownership.
Copyright, however, is automatic in the United States (and most countries that have signed the Berne Convention). You obtain copyright (ownership) of your work the instant it is created and “fixed” in any medium. Registration, though offering valuable benefits, is optional, and can be accomplished online at www.copyright.gov for the princely sum of $35. The “Poor Man’s Copyright” is not a substitute for registration; it neither detracts nor adds to your ownership.
So, what does Poor Man’s Copyright accomplish? Well, in theory, it might provide evidence of the date you created your work in the event of a infringement lawsuit involving the issue of “independent creation” by another writer. But actually, all it can prove is that on the date of the postmark, you possessed the envelope – it doesn’t prove you created what was inside, or that you couldn’t have created the work on an even earlier date.
The few areas where the Poor Man’s Copyright may be useful is in a joint ownership dispute (where one joint owner claims she contributed to a manuscript after its creation), or in a misappropriation of an idea controversy (although ideas cannot be copyrighted, a breach of contract action sometimes is available). These issues arise most commonly in Hollywood, where pitch meetings are frequent and disputes about writing credits can result in blood vendettas. It is for this reason that the Writer’s Guild of America, West has its own version of Poor Man’s Copyright — the WGA allows you to “register” your script or treatment for a fee. Again, however, that “registration” doesn’t prove ownership under copyright law.
It is unfortunate that so many would-be authors spend more time worrying about the extremely unlikely event that someone will steal their ideas, than actually creating and polishing their work. In my years of experience in the publishing world, I know of no instance where a legitimate agent or editor “stole” the work of an author. Yes, it certainly is possible, but the simple solution – if it worries you – is to go online and register your work. Even a poor man or woman can do that.
© 2013 Daniel Steven