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What is Poor Man's Copyright?

written by: Kristina Dems•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 11/22/2010

The poor man's copyright is not actually a valid way of establishing copyright ownership when federal law is concerned. It does establish your ownership of the copyright, but if you are going to use it to protect your copyright, it may prove to be weak in a court of law.

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    Copyright Protecting one's intellectual property is one of the most important tasks in the filmmaking industry. Intellectual property can be just an idea that no one wants or admires, or it can be the source of a multimedia franchise that is worth billions. Whatever the intellectual property is, it is worth protecting. One of the most infamous ways of doing this is through a poor man's copyright. What exactly is this method of protecting an intellectual property and is it effective? That is what we are going to find out in this article.

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    How a Poor Man's Copyright is Implemented

    To implement poor man's copyright, one simply has to mail their work, whether it is a movie script, a song or movie concepts, to themself. The package must not be opened to keep the poor man's copyright in effect. Since sending the package to one's self entails placing the date it was sent out and the date it was received, it is one way of legally establishing when the intellectual property was created. This method however is not legally binding, making it an invalid substitute for copyright registration. For this reason, it is not advised to solely rely on this method to establish one's ownership of an intellectual property. At best, all it does is establish when the intellectual property was created.

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    Common Law Copyright

    Common law dictates that as soon as an intellectual property is made tangible, whether it is written down, recorded on tapes or digitally, it makes the person who made the intellectual property tangible the owner of the common law copyright. This legal ownership of the copyright, however, does not ensure that the owner will be able to collect full damages if they decide to sue for copyright infringement. Some form of damages will be allowed to be collected, but it will be extremely limited. To have full control and ownership of a copyright, Federal registration with the US Copyright Office must be established.

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    The Pitfalls of the Poor Man's Copyright

    First and foremost, there are many easy ways for this method to be faked. The simplest of them all is to mail yourself an unsealed envelope. This will provide you the chance to put anything in it. You can lay common law copyright ownership on anything that you have created long after you have mailed the envelope. If you are using digital media to implement poor man's copyright, it is far easier to fake it since you can pretty much dictate what the date stamp on the media would be in addition to the date on the envelope. These and more ways can be implemented to fake a poor man's copyright. This is the reason why relying only on the this method of copyright will not really have a strong chance of standing in a court of law.

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    The Bottomline

    It is not essential to perform the poor man's copyright method since all you need to do to establish copyright ownership is to present your intellectual property in a tangible form to the public. Letting people know that it is copyrighted material is essentially the only thing you need to establish your copyright ownership. However, registering with the Copyright Office gives you more benefits when it is time to protect your copyright ownership.

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    Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; GNU Lesser General Public License / Supplied by David Vignoni