What is a “Poor Man’s Copyright”?
There are various services that offer to “date-stamp” or “archive” your work as a means of somehow protecting it. This may only be useful in some foreign countries that lack a copyright registration
system like in the U.S.A.
Generally, these methods are modern variations of what’s commonly known as the “poor man’s copyright” and do not provide any legal protection against copyright infringement.
The poor man’s copyright refers to an old method of using the postal service to establish that the material in question has been in your possession since a particular time. The concept involves
mailing yourself a sealed envelope containing your own original creative works so that if the material was later copied or claimed by a third party, the existence of the sealed envelope would establish an earlier date when you created the work.
Obviously, anyone can send themselves an envelope which can then be used at a later time for
placing the materials inside.
Not a Substitute for Copyright Registration
Sending yourself a sealed envelope with your work inside or using some service offering to electronically “date stamp” your uploaded file is not a substitute for registering your copyright
with the U.S. government. There is no provision in the copyright laws for this type of protection.
There has never been a court case in the U.S. where the outcome resulted from the poor man’s copyright method – probably because a federal court does not have jurisdiction to hear the case
unless the copyright has first been registered.
In order to take legal action against someone who has copied your original work, your copyright
must be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Electronic Date Stamp
Of the many problems with the more modern Internet “electronic date stamp” version of these
methods – the thought that you will have “proof” of creation and copyright ownership if someone
steals your work or claims it as their own, is misguided.
These methods do not provide any record of who the authors are or who might have contributed
to the work. A date stamp or sealed envelope only indicates that the work existed at a certain time,
but does not answer the most important question: Who owns this work?