Why does the myth of "poor man's copyright" persist?

Whenever somebody here posts a question about "how do I copyright my [story|novel|poem|whatever]?" (sometimes even when they don't), at least one of the answers will recommend what's known as a "poor man's copyright". This is where you post a copy of your work to yourself and don't open it when it arrives. Supposedly, if somebody ever copies your work without your permission, the postmark on the envelope proves that whatever is inside the envelope was in your possession on that date. Simple, cheap, effective, right? Well... two out of three ain't bad. It won't stand up in court, and it never has.

I'm guessing most of the people on Y!A are in the USA. Have a look at this page from the site of the US Copyright Office:

http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html

Towards the bottom, it says about poor man's copyright: "There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration." The Copyright Office is the branch of the government that keeps records of copyrights and who claims to own them, so it doesn't get any more official than that.

Further up that page, it says: "In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work." So not only is poor man's copyright useless in court, it doesn't even save you the $35 that it costs to register a copyright!

What about other countries, then? Not all of them have copyright offices. Some of them prefer to let the courts sort it all out. See, for example, this page from the UK's Intellectual Property Office:

http://www.ipo.gov.uk/ipinsight-200908-answers.htm

At the bottom, it says: "[A] creator could send himself or herself a copy by special delivery post ... It is important to note, that this does not prove that a work is original or created by you. But it may be useful to be able to show the court that the work was in your possession at a particular date." That's not very encouraging, is it?

(Both those links came from http://www.snopes.com/legal/postmark.asp )

So why does this myth persist? You'd think that if poor man's copyright worked, at least one person would have successfully used it when trying to protect his copyright. Can anyone point to a case where someone has used it in court and the judge hasn't simply laughed and thrown the case out? Cases that didn't get to court don't count, because the infringer was not being forced to act by someone with the power to impose large payments on him.

Why does the myth persist? Why is there so much ignorance in the world?

(First suggested category - Society & Culture -> Mythology & Folklore. More appropriate than I know?)

Update:

Some answers are missing the point... I'm not asking how you really protect a copyright. I'm asking why some people insist on spreading wrong information about how to do that.

The writer in the Stephen King story should've said "I'll see you in court, then," but I suppose Mr King likes messing with people's heads...

10 Answers

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  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago
    Favourite answer

    Several reasons:

    1) It sounds like a cheap, practical solution. It's plausible, involves a trusted government agency, not a bunch of slimy, shady lawyers.

    2) At one time it would have been good enough to settle a dispute, without necessarily needing to have the full sanction of law behind it. Nowadays the slimy lawyers wouldn't even blink at it--it's like trying to stop a freight train with a skipping rope.

    3) Hasbeen/neverwere authors who are reduced to scraping by on "workshops" and "retreats" and "critiquing circles" etc. infect...um I mean pass on....nuggets of "wisdom" to the only people who still take them seriously, often eager, unquestioning newbies who don't double check.

    4) The internet has turned #3 into a global phenomenon with misinformation and half-assed folk wisdom speeding around the world in a heartbeat.

  • 4 years ago

    Poor Mans Copyright

  • 1 decade ago

    Because it is a nice idea and people want to believe in it. However, wanting to believe in something does not make it factually correct, or mean that it will stand up in court. Any aspiring writer would be sensible to research the copyright laws in their country, instead of taking the word of a friend of a friend or an answer on Y!A that does not direct the asker to an official government site.

    I have never known of a single case where poor man's copyright has been used, let alone upheld in court. Just as I have never been called to testify as a postal employee.

    For the benefit of any Australians who may be reading this, there is no copyright registration in Australia. Check out the Copyright Council website for more information:

    http://www.copyright.org.au/

  • 5 years ago

    Here where I live at some people don't even have enough money to have dinner... and if they had spaghetti they would consider that a treat. The menu for the people I'm talking about: Hot tortillas with some salt & maybe, yes maybe, a cup of coffee (if you can call that coffee). If i was you, I'd surely be glad to enjoy spaghetti for dinner! The poor guy/gal that told you that doesn't have the slightest idea of what POOR really means!

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  • 1 decade ago

    None of that says that it doesn't work. Proving you had something in your possession by a certain date - say, an earlier date than another person's copyright claims to have written something can be all you need. A copyright is automatic and exists from the moment something is created. Registering it is just the best way to prove that it is yours, not necessarily the only way.

    Having said that, I've never understood the whole idea of the poor man's copyright anyway since I can mail an unsealed envelope to myself and once it's postmarked I can put anything I want to in it at a later date.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Stephen King wrote "Secret Window" - also a Hollywood movie. It features poor man's copyright being used. The stalker reveals the unopened enveloped copy with a post-date prior to the book being published and says that the writer copied him. The writer claims he originally published it in a magazine prior to that date, but can't find a copy of said magazine.

    That movie probably help secure the idea in people's head.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0363988/plotsummary

  • 1 decade ago

    I suspect the myth persists because people whose intentions are good still spread it frequently, including people who really ought to know better (like teachers or professors), and because on the surface it seems like it might indeed prove what you had and when.

    Which, of course, it doesn't. There are all kinds of ways to fake it, many of them laughably easy. The courts know that, which is why they have never, and will never, accept poor man's copyright as evidence of anything.

    You and I and other regulars challenge the myth every time it's posted here, but this is one board of thousands where the misinformation is spread.

    It's also worth noting that theft of one's writing for sale by someone other than the author is *extremely* rare. Not that it never ever happens, but of the hundreds of writers I know in person or online, I know of one such instance. One. Selling writing is hard--and rewrites penned by thieves just don't cut it, in editors' opinions. ;-)

  • 1 decade ago

    Neither the "poor man's" copyright NOR registration is required for an author of a published work to retain copyright protection. From the moment it is in a fixed form, REGISTERED or NOT, COPYRIGHT NOTICE AFFIXED or NOT, the originator OWNS the copyright.

    Although a copyright must be registered if the owner brings suit, the registration can be filed at any time. In the extraordinarily unlikely event that the originator elects to bring an infringement suit, he or she can register the work at that time (e.g., immediately prior to bringing suit).

    In other words, the "poor man's" copyright procedure is unnecessary. A work is protected from the moment it is in a fixed form. Immediate registration is also unnecessary, as it is not the act of registration which imbues the originator with copyright, rather, it is the act of creating (and putting in fixed form) the work which results in automatic protection.

    This bears repeating: an originator can register a copyright AT ANY TIME. It is *not* a legal necessity to file for copyright registration at the time of writing to "protect" one's work. If push comes to shove (it rarely does), you can file your registration 5 minutes before you walk into the courtroom.

    I've appended relevant information (taken directly from the US Copyright Office informational materials) below:

    . . .

    "Furthermore, in the event that a work is infringed, if a proper notice of copyright appears on the published copy or copies to which a defendant in a copyright infringement suit had access, then no weight shall be given to such a defendant’s interposition of a defense based on innocent infringement in mitigation of actual or statutory damages, except as provided in section 504(c)(2) of the copyright law. Innocent infringement occurs when the infringer did not realize that the work was protected. The use of the copyright notice is the responsibility of the copyright owner and does not require advance permission from, or registration with, the Copyright Office."

    . . .

    "Before an infringement suit may be filed in court, registration

    is necessary for works of U. S. origin."

    . . .

    "Registration may be made at any time within the life of

    the copyright."

    ~Dr. B.~

  • 1 decade ago

    It persists largely because people want to believe they have something worth copyrighting in the first place. It also persists because lets face it, why pay for something when you can get it for free, or for the cost of postage.

    It also persists because people won't look these things up themselves. They ask other people, who claim to have much knowledge, and end up getting false information and bad advice.

  • 4 years ago

    1

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