poor man's copyright (1988)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sat Jan 15 20:48:24 UTC 2005

Came across a website recently on "the poor man's copyright":

Most references are to the legally dubious practice of mailing oneself a
work to be copyrighted and using the postmark as proof of the creation
date (though the 1988 Usenet cite below simply refers to using a copyright
notice without registering the work with a copyright office).  The 1992
cite quoting Willie Dixon suggests that the term has long been in
circulation among blues musicians and songwriters.

Newsgroups: news.sysadmin, misc.legal
Subject: Re: No RTM trial?
Message-ID: <2458 at aplcomm.jhuapl.edu>
Date: 16 Nov 88 18:20:50 GMT
I think Morris has to actually claim copyrights on this material in some
manner, even if it is just having a listing notorized or prepending "the
poor man's copyright" (a "copyright" comment at the top of the module).
Newsgroups: rec.games.frp
Subject: Publishing Games and Copyrights.
Message-ID: <2705 at naucse.cse.nau.edu>
Date: 17 Oct 90 16:37:17 GMT
If you plan on selling your work for royalties or a fee, to another
company, then the poor man's copyright is acceptable.  (That is sending a
copy of your product to yourself registered mail.) Do not break the seal.
The judge will do that if you ever must go to court.
The CVN (New Bedford, Mass.), Jun 21, 1991, p. 8 (Proquest)
Let's say you then present a poor man's copyright of the song as proof.
(This is a copy of the song mailed to yourself and never opened.) It won't
hold up in court either, mainly because there are many ways to open and
reseal a letter without showing any evidence of tampering.
Washington Post, Feb 2, 1992, p. G1 (Nexis)
[Blues songwriter Willie] Dixon was for years master of what he called
"the poor man's copyright" -- he sent lyrics and sheet music to himself as
registered letters, proof that songs had been written at a particular
Associated Press, Aug 16, 1996 (Nexis)
She said this fear of the business end of things perpetrates misleading
information through the grapevine "where you come up with silly things
like poor man's copyright" - when a writer believes that sending a script
to himself proves the date the script was written because of the postmark.
St. Petersburg Times (Florida), Feb 6, 1999, p. 1 (Nexis)
[Comic book illustrator Bruce] Miller also talked about what he called
"the poor man's copyright." He told the audience that if they could not
afford to register their work, they should get the work notarized and then
mail it to themselves, leaving it unopened. The post office dates the
envelopes, thus making a written record of when the work was complete.
Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, Mar 18, 2002, p. 1 (Proquest)
At 18, seven years after he came up with the idea for Maggen, Vigliotti
mailed the idea back to himself -- a "poor-man's copyright" -- just like
he had done when he wrote songs. That way he would have an official
conception date, using the postmark to show that "I started building it
first," Vigliotti said.
Louisville Eccentric Observer, Nov 6, 2002, p. 25 (Proquest)
At the post office he'd run into Theo, who had made a cassette of mixes of
the songs they'd done and was mailing it back to himself. "Poor man's
copyright," Theo told him.
Billboard, Mar 13, 2004, p. 9 (Proquest)
Make sure all of your band's songs have copyright protection. Full federal
registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is always advisable. Yes, you
can do the "poor man's copyright" and mail yourself a CD of songs to prove
the creation date.
Market Wire, Jul 14, 2004 (Nexis)
Tom also addressed the fact that the LSA provides a legitimate alternative
to the poor man's copyright. "Creative artists and individual inventors
have been misled by numerous methods to get a 'poor man's copyright.'"

--Ben Zimmer

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