poor man’s copyright (doesn’t actually work)

A few weeks ago I’d found a discussion online discussing easy ways to protect writing before it gets sent out to be considered for publication, and the fellow who wrote the article advocated something called ‘Poor Man’s Copyright’. The basic idea is that if you take a copy of your manuscript, go to the post office, and mail it to yourself. The postal date will show that you wrote it first. Sounds pretty smart?

Except… it’s a writer’s myth.

Google the term. It isn’t protected by law. If you ever do need to prove that you wrote something first– which shouldn’t happen, but if you do need to– this won’t do a thing for you where a court is concerned.

I’m bringing this up because when I read the original discussion, I included a link to the government copyright page in my comment saying that the method was legally useless. The journal moderated its comments, and my remark was not approved. It seems to be a rather terrible way to make certain that ‘you’re right’, especially since the blog had a large number of younger authors following it.

I’ve heard some people in the publishing industry say that protecting your manuscript like this isn’t needed, because professionals would never rip you off. I’ve also seen others insist that getting a formal copyright is just a smart thing to do. Being the cynic that I am, I think I’d rather pay the small fee and agree with the latter. Anyone involved in publishing/editing/agenting can feel free to disagree with me on this.

7 thoughts on “poor man’s copyright (doesn’t actually work)

  1. not sure about this. I’ve recently decided to make work I publish on my blog free for others to use under an attribution/noncommercial/share alike creative commons license. As far as the stuff I’m not posting there (longer stories submitted to print journals, excerpts from my in-edit-phase novel), I’ve never really thought about the copyright but you may be right. I do know that when agents ask to see more of your work after the query letter stage, some will often make you sign disclosures or agreements saying you won’t sue if somewhere down the road something in some way similar to what you pitched ends up getting produced by someone in connection with the agency. I don’t think professionals are in the practice of ripping people off, but I do think they want to protect themselves from coincidence. best of luck.

  2. interesting, i had heard of the poor mans copyright before, thought it might have been a load of bull! i’m looking a bit more at the creative commons licenses when it comes to writing and how it can protect me…anyway thanks for the comment the other day, actually playing out the moves of a fight with a friend is a great idea

  3. If you write anything on your comouter, it assigns a creation date to your file, so I don’t know why you would have to mail it to yourself.

    I have read in some books that it is not recommended to get a copyright on something you send to be considered for publication, as it implies you are concerned that they might steal your work. I don’t know if that’s true or not.

    Here’s a link to some good info. on copyright:


  4. That’s because computers can be hacked; I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and I could change the date inside the word file without any trouble.

    What I heard from publishers advising authors was that it annoys them when the author brings up the copyright or worries about it excessively, as if accusing them of dishonesty ahead of time. I can understand that. It’s insulting and presumptuous behavior from their perspective. It still doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t take extra steps ahead of time.

  5. Hi Eliza.

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. You’re right about poor man’s copyright; it’s a waste of paper and postage (and I’ve wasted a lot of both, in my time).

    It’s true pros have no interest in stealing us wannabes’ ideas; they’ve got far too many of their own to work on. What you need concern yourself with is your *execution* of an idea. Those are unique to the individual, and soon as you formalize yours, it’s auto-copyrighted just by dint of being done.

    To wit: finish your best stuff and be first to market with it. The publishing industry is too often a low-returns game for any theoretical malcontents to bother with the effort of plagiarizing the unpublished.

    Good luck with Blue Crystal! I’ll keep reading.


  6. The way I understand it is that you don’t need to do anything to copyright your work at all. It is protected under copyright law when you create it. Copyright is automatic. Also, I don’t think that aspiring writers need to worry too much about their work being stolen. Most of the time when someone is accused of plagiarism, they have copied published works, not unpublished manuscripts.

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