What is a poor man’s copyright and how does it work?

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What is a poor man’s copyright and how does it work?

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Basically it’s any way you can prove that you originated a work. A date-stamped example of the work certified by an independent body is decent proof.

The classic example is writing it down and mailing it to yourself. So if you ever have a conflict over who originated work you’ve got a sealed envelope with a USPS date stamp on it containing the work. That’s some decent proof that you had that work on X date.

This sent me down a rabbit hole because I misunderstood some things.

“Poor Man’s Copyright” is indeed the act of doing something with a work that proves you had a copy on that date. Mailing it to yourself puts a dated postmark on it. Sticking it in a bank vault usually gives you a dated receipt. In the US, none of this protects you from copyright infringement.

What surprised me is apparently you can’t file an infringement suit without first registering the copyright. Because of that, “Poor Man’s Copyright” won’t help you sue someone for infringement. That said, if upon registration there is conflict about who originated the work, perhaps having a dated postmark on a manuscript would help solve that dispute.

So it seems like if you’re asking because you want to protect something, you should register that work with the US Copyright Office. Their website has the paperwork and FAQs, and it seems like it only costs about $45. However, you might also want to employ a lawyer while you’re at it and get them to oversee the process. If you’ve got legitimately concerns about infringement, you’ll want to have them around anyway.

(This is weird to me because even with this in place, copyright is still automatic in US law. The thing I learned today is you can’t file for infringement until you register a copyright. This seems to create some chicken-and-egg problems and I don’t know how to answer those questions.)