Does a poor man copyright really protect my work?

This is a question I get ALL the time, like clockwork on a weekly basis, from people writing books, to people writing blogs, to songwriters.

The following is a very brief, and mind you Title 17 of the U.S. code is extensive, not to mention various elements that lead to litigation, and the laws surrounding copyright are changing constantly.

Three criteria must be met in order for a work of authorship to be protected by copyright:

1)  The work must be original,

2) The work must be fixed in a tangible medium of expression,

3) It must have a least some creativity.

Some non-exclusive means of copyright ownership are:

1) Initial Copyright Ownership vests in the author or authors of the work. The authors of a joint work are co-owners of copyright in the work.

2) Works Made for Hire result when an employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise, in a written instrument signed by them.

3) Contributions to Collective Works occur when there are separate contributions to a collective work that are distinct from the copyright in the collective work as a whole, and vests initially in the author of the contribution.

A common misnomer is that you have to register your work with the Library of Congress in order to have copyright protection.  However, a creative work is protected by copyright from the time the author fixes the work into a tangible form.  Registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office is not necessary to obtain basic copyright protection.

If you choose not to register your work with the Library of Congress you should attempt to protect your work by placing the copyright symbol next to your work, © (year of publication) (Author).  If you publish and distribute your work to the public, placing this notice on your work prevents others from claiming that they did not know that the work was covered by copyright.  The © symbol can become extremely important to the author if the author suspects infringement.  If the author has clearly displayed the © symbol and finds a law suit is needed then the author will be able to claim that the infringement was deliberate.

Most people have heard the term poor man copyright.  Some people believe that by mailing a copy of their work to themselves and leaving it sealed they will have the same protection as if they had registered it with the Library of Congress.  The main problem that results from this concept is where a suit for infringement is initiated.  It is hard to prove that an envelope was never opened and replaced with different contents…..hence the presumption of ownership and protection given when your work is registered with the Library of Congress.

For questions on transferring your copyright interests, the length of time your work is protected by copyright, copyright infringement, royalties, derivative works, publication, damages as the result of copyright infringement, and co-author agreements for copyright, email Hilary Metz at


(c) 2014 Hilary Metz

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