What Is a “Poor Man’s Copyright”?

Full Question: Is there such a thing as the “poor man’s copyright”? If not, does the postmark date provide a creator any value?

Answer: The phrase “poor man’s copyright” refers to the practice of mailing a copy of your work to yourself.

Under the copyright law, a work of original authorship is protected by copyright from the moment it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. But clarified in ¤ 411 of the Copyright Act, a certificate of registration (or refusal) from the U.S. Copyright Office is a prerequisite to bring a copyright infringement action in federal court.

Mailing a copy of your work to yourself will not serve as a substitute for registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. However, the postmark on a “poor man’s copyright” could provide some value to a creator in an infringement action, in that it could be used as evidence that the work was in existence on a certain date, or to demonstrate that the work was independently created before the creation of another work.

Answered by:

Rob Kasunic, Director of Registration Policy and Practices at the U.S. Copyright Office