“Poor man’s” copyright is the act of mailing yourself a copy of your work or publishing it to a third party website (like YouTube) to document when it was created. There is no provision in copyright law regarding “poor man’s” copyright and it is not a substitute for registering your works with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Note: It is now mandatory to register your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office before filing a lawsuit. Only copyright holders who have obtained a decision regarding their application may file a lawsuit. Obtaining a decision from the Copyright Office can take 3-7 months. Pending applications are not eligible.
There are a number of benefits to registering your works with the U.S. Copyright Office:
- You receive a certificate as physical proof of your registration.
- There is a public record of your ownership.
- Registration gives you the option to file an infringement suit, if necessary.
- You may be eligible to collect statutory damages and attorney’s fees from litigation.
- Registration is considered factual evidence in a court of law if filed within 5 years of publication.
- You can record the registration with the U.S. Customs Service for protection against the importation of infringing copies of your work.
- Registering your works entitles you to collect damages at the basic statutory level (between $750 and $30,000 per work) at the court’s discretion. Damages may increase to $150,000 per work if the infringement was determined to be deliberate. Additionally, you may also be awarded attorney’s fees as well.
“Poor man’s” copyright offers none of the above.
Copyright owners that rely on “poor man’s” copyright are not granted the same protections and rights of owners that registered with the Copyright Office. The difference is critical, particularly when it comes to legal proceedings (when things go wrong, like they sometimes do). Copyright owners that have registered may be eligible to collect a higher sum from legal lawsuits compared to copyright owners that have not registered. If you are only relying on “poor man’s copyright,” you can only collect actual damages — even if you win your suit, you could end up owing more in legal fees than the sum you won!