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For years I have heard the phrase “Poor Man’s Copyright” thrown around in songwriting circles. The term is often brought up as a cheap alternative to an official $35 or $55 copyright from the US Copyright Office.

Mailing a song to yourself…

Statements are thrown out like: “Don’t bother to pay the money for the real deal when all you have to do is make a simple recording, seal it in a self addressed envelope, and mail it to yourself.” Quickly, someone else jumps in and says, “Don’t bother with all that, just email the song recording to yourself or a friend. That gives you proof that you wrote it.”

I think much of the misconceptions around this arise from the fact that Copyright legislation, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1978, dictates that all works are automatically copyrighted from the time they are created and “fixed” in some recognizable way. Meaning: you own the copyright the moment you create your song. BUT……

The real truth about a poor man’s copyright…

The federal copyright office explains on its website, “The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a ‘poor man’s copyright.’ There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”

The real truth is that even though you have copyrighted your song just by writing it, you do NEED to register your work so you can be eligible to take advantage of the statutory damages rule that allows courts to fine people who violate your copyright.

What’s the point of claiming you own the copyright if you can’t be compensated as much as possible if someone steals your work and profits from your song? Bottom line is—for full protection—you’ll need to officially register your song at the US Copyright Office.

I know some people who wait until they have a small group of songs to copyright them as a collection, rather than pay to file each song individually. This does save them quite a bit of money! But… it has a few disadvantages, so best to do your research before applying this method.

As a long-time professional songwriter, I can tell you that it is very rare for someone to steal a song. Most artists and writers want the world to hear their own ideas. But, occasionally someone does stoop low and borrows melody and/or lyrics from someone else’s song. To fully protect yourself, you’ll need more than a poor man’s version of copyright. Get the real-deal.

More info can be found at: Copyright.gov

  • Always consult a music attorney with any legal questions you have regarding your songs.

Write On! ~Clay.


[Image via Creative Commons/Certified Mail by Tony Webster (CC BY 2.0)]

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  • I would recommend copyrighting the song immediately. Intentional infringement is pretty rare (songwriters want to be celebrated for what THEY create on their own, not what they stole), but it’s still worth protecting yourself BEFORE anyone shows interest.

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  • Is Slippery When Wet the label name? If so, that’s how it should be on iTunes.

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  • Morgo Robinson

    It all comes down to whether you can prove that the person who stole from you had access to your work. Your work is copyrighted when you create it, yes. But let’s say you write a screenplay that sits in a drawer seen only by you. If someone in Hollywood writes an eerily similar script you might lose in court because you can’t prove that the writer had access to your script. In that case even a copyright doesn’t do you much good. But if you send your script to Paramount and someone from Paramount writes an eerily similar script then you might have a case. In the George Harrison case all the lawyers had to do was prove that Harrison may have listened to He’s So Fine on the radio while touring in the states. So even though he may not have borrowed melodies from the song on purpose he had access to it.