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March 16th, 2017

Colten Marsh

One of the more common misconceptions among creatives involving the security of their works is known as the “Poor Man’s Copyright”.

It’s been regarded for years as a simple means or work around the conventional copyrighting process, whereby an author, musician or screenwriter sends a physical copy of their work to themselves via mail. The act of doing so creates a “time stamp” or what can be considered an official time of authorship, that a creator can then use to uphold their authorship should the work be stolen or misappropriated. Sounds great, right? In theory yes, but in this article we’ll dig a little further, and get down to the advantages, and some of the loopholes involving the poor man’s copyright.

Why a Poor Man’s Copyright Might Make Sense?

A fundamental principle of copyright law states that as soon as a work is placed in a fixed medium, such as a book or a disc or even an email, it is protected under law as “intellectual property”. The basis of the poor man’s copyright is fixed on this idea, and the very act of creating a work and saving it secures the right’s of the author. That being said if cash is tight it can be a means of protecting your work from direct infringement. Where it gets tricky however, is the extent at which a poor man’s copyright can protect you should things go awry.

For example, you record a song and put it on the internet and for whatever reason and a film producer hears it, picks it up without your knowledge and syncs it into his upcoming ad campaign. To your amazement (and surprise, no doubt) you hear your own music on tv after the ad goes viral, and millions of people are now hearing your song and buying the product advertised! Time to call up that lawyer you’ve retained so you can get all the money you deserve.

NOT SO FAST!

You may have proof that you are the copyright owner, but because you register your work with the US Copyright Office, you won’t be suing for any statutory damages. This means you will ONLY be able to receive the amount that the infringement made or that you lost in the process. So if that ad-campaign endorsed another product, that could mean you walk away with next to nothing. Meanwhile, if you had spent the $35 to register that copyright with the US Copyright Office, you could make a claim that the infringement not only cost you X but caused you Y and Z damages due to the nature of the campaign that was advertised (insert legal jargon here).

The Verdict

You can claim ownership of a work as soon as you Save that ProTools session but, if it’s not registered with the US Copyright Office it could cost you intangible damages should you be infringed upon. Our conclusion, if you are planning on releasing your work to the public with any sort of financial gain or personal benefit, it’s best to to secure the integrity and future of your work by registering it with the US Copyright Office.

You can access information on fees, and how-to-guidelines by calling (202) 707-3000 or visiting www.copyright.gov

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