The Full Story on “Poor Man’s Copyright”

The term “poor man’s copyright” refers to the practice of mailing a copy of your song — or any other work that you’ve created — to yourself via registered mail, leaving the envelope unopened. Since registered mail displays the date of mailing, it’s believed that it can serve to support the assertion that you are the author of whatever’s inside the envelope.

Of course, all this does is affirm that whatever is in the envelope was in your possession at the time of mailing, which is certainly not the same as affirming authorship or copyright. And as a way of proving copyright, there has never been a legal case that has been decided in favour of anyone using this method.

It’s a common enough suggestion for replacing true copyright registration that a description of poor man’s copyright appears on, the website that sorts out the truths and fictions behind common rumours and urban myths.

Here are Snopes’ findings, in a nutshell:

  1. In the U.S.: No legal standing for poor man’s copyright. It won’t help in a court of law to establish authorship.
  2. In the U.K.: It might help to prove at least that the work was in your possession on a certain date. I could only see that being useful if someone claimed that a song was written by them on a certain date, and you happen to have a registered letter with the same song, dated before they claim the song was written. But even in that case, it doesn’t prove authorship.
  3. Poor man’s copyright is not a reliable replacement for copyright registration.

The best way to protect your songs is to register the copyright. This means to send a copy of your song to your country’s copyright or intellectual property department. Each country will have its own specific steps for doing this; it usually involves sending a copy or copies to the copyright office, and paying a fee.

Rather than going through all the details, here’s a very clearly written article that covers recorded music, printed music, and includes examples of what can and can’t be protected by copyright.

Anything you write is automatically protected by copyright, and there is no legal requirement for you to register the copyright. However, it’s difficult to prove or support any claims without registration.

Snopes mentions another article written by Brad Templeton, “10 Big Myths about copyright explained“, which gives more important information.

I contacted the U.S. Copyright Office several years ago in an attempt to answer a question about registering groups of songs. The representative replied to me that it is acceptable to group songs together and register an entire collection, assuming that there is some connection between the songs (i.e., they all belong to an album you’re working on, for example). That one collection can be registered, with one fee paid. So that’s a great way to save money, since all songs within the group of songs will be registered.

Remember that you cannot copyright chord progressions or song titles, or even certain common phrases of words. But certainly you’ll be able to protect unique melodies and lyrics, and I strongly recommend you do so, particularly if you plan to stream your music online.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Chord Progression Formulas“Chord Progression Formulas” show you a quick way to devise chord progressions based on Roman numeral based formulas. It’s easy, and it’s all described within this short eBook. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle packages. Read more.

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  1. Pingback: Gary Ewer – The Full Story on “Poor Man’s Copyright” – 3-3-16 | I Write The Music

  2. Hi All I beg to differ on this one Why??? well sending a copy of that song
    to The Copyright Office in the U K or in the U S of A does not mean you
    wrote the song , how can it ??
    It could be a song written for you by a company, and of course that would never
    make it to the charts, for obvious reasons , Writing Hit Songs is an Art and
    people offering that service they dont know how to write songs, Also it could be a song someone has stolen from a collaboration with others , Anyone can send
    anything in and how is it
    proof you wrote it I know people who believe that because they chose
    The Chords to the song they own the song where of course in a
    collaboration you could be a shared owner with others

    I dont think there has ever been a case where anyone has had to prove
    they wrote the song because Publishers always re register The Copyright
    for the writers,

    There is too much nonsense with amateur writers rushing to get the song
    copyrighted, Copyright Law states as soon as you have recorded the song
    in a demo form thats good enough to leave with your Bank with the date
    of registration

    I know of cases where certain Producers have registered the song for the artist
    adding their own name , because they changed three words:

    • Hi Peter:

      I believe that in cases of disputed authorship, especially someone being left out of a collaboration, one will need several bits of evidence, only one of which would be the registration. From my reading, it seems that the most common copyright disputes are unintentional plagiarism, and then (it would seem) someone being left out of a list of collaborators. If you record a demo and then take it straight to the bank with a date of registration, and then someone claims to have written it, I suspect nothing will be “cut & dry” about that situation. Poor man’s copyright, in any of its forms, will only prove the day you mailed it.

      Thanks for your comments as always, Peter.

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