“Poor Man’s Copyright”

Q. What exactly is the “poor man’s copyright?”  I keep seeing it referenced on writing sites.

A. Besides being misogynistic, this little nugget of Internet Wisdom never seems to die.  It almost rises to the status of urban legend.  Not quite as bad as Tide Pods, but for writers, almost as dangerous.  I have encountered many otherwise sophisticated writers who not only believe in this charming fantasy, but also practice it.  And yes, there are fan sites and legitimate writer’s sites that either advocate it, or don’t challenge it when it appears in forums.

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 Voila! you prove your ownership.

But copyright is automatic in the United States (and in all countries that have signed the Berne Copyright Convention).  You obtain copyright (ownership) of your work the second it is created and “fixed” in any medium.  Registration, although offering valuable benefits in the United States (and highly recommended), is optional, and can be accomplished online at copyright.gov for the royal 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.  If you must prove your date of creation, you can do that with other evidence such as time stamps on electronic files and witness testimony from persons who critiqued your manuscript.

The two areas where the Poor Man’s Copyright can be useful are 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  a nondisclosure contract action is possible).  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” a script or treatment for a fee.  Again, that “registration” doesn’t establish ownership under copyright law and is not the equivalent of registration with the Copyright Office — it simply is an item of proof in one of the above disputes.

It is unfortunate many writer spend more time worrying about the extremely unlikely event that someone will steal their work, than actually creating and polishing that work.  Legitimate agents or editors will not jeopardize their companies and reputations by outright stealing the work of a writer.  If you are concerned about an editor or agent giving your ideas to another writer, you can demand a nondisclosure agreement.  Good luck with that.  To the contrary, publishers, editors, and agents who take unsolicited manuscripts often will require written waivers of the right to sue from writers before accepting any submission.  Yes, theft of a whole manuscript or portions thereof is  possible, but the simple solution – if it worries you – is to go online to copyright.gov and register your work.  Even a poor man or woman can do that.

© 2020 Daniel Steven