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 Snopes.com, the website that sorts out the truths and fictions behind common rumours and urban myths.
Here are Snopes’ findings, in a nutshell:
- In the U.S.: No legal standing for poor man’s copyright. It won’t help in a court of law to establish authorship.
- 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.
- 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.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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