The Poor Man’s Copyright
It’s become somewhat of an urban myth but at some point within the last, oh, 20 years or more, it was agreed upon by every band in America that it was completely unnecessary to file a copyright application with the US Copyright Office to protect their music. Just shove your CD in an envelope, lick a stamp and mail it to yourself. That’s proof (per the postmarked envelope) that you created the music – the “poor man’s copyright” as I call it. Sure, if the only other option is to do nothing, this method may help you establish a date of creation. But it’s not the same as filing a copyright application with the Copyright Office.
There are many who apparently employ this method exclusively. I shudder to think where those post-marked envelopes end up – crumpled against white-hot tubes in the back of Fender Twin Reverbs or irretrievably lost in a footlocker full of chipped pics, dust balls and lyric sheets scribed in Bic-pen blue.
Considering that the copyright application is priced for the poor man (as low as $35), I have to wonder who propagated the myth. The U.S. Postal Service was the most obvious suspect. Turns out, it was actually a clandestine operation launched by the Postmaster General to boost revenue, starting with a ghost-written “Did-You-Know?” blurb in the Village Voice in 1973. I’m just kidding.
It’s really more plausible that most authors and composers don’t know how cheap and easy it is to file an application with the US Copyright Office. If you have the time to mail a demo or manuscript to yourself, you have the time to register your work with the Copyright Office.
Do I have to register the work with the Copyright Office to claim legal ownership?
Well, no. You have common law protection for your works, that is, once you put your creative expression into some form of fixed media, you own it. But the common law copyright won’t get you the statutory remedies under the Copyright Act. Should you ever find yourself in the unenviable position of discovering that someone has ripped off your tune, it’s much more persuasive to send the infringer your copyright registration than to mail a letter that says “hey, that’s mine!”
I’ve got 80 tunes to register and I don’t have that kind of cash.
No problem. You can register multiple works in one application.
Is it instantaneous? How long until I have the actual copyright?
It’s not an overnight transaction. In fact, it could be next year when you actually receive your certificate of registration (they receive a lot of applications). But after you file you’ll receive a confirmation of filing and a case number associated with your material.
Do I need to hire a lawyer to file a copyright application?
No. You do not need to be a licensed attorney to file a copyright application with the U.S. Copyright Office. In fact, as a composer I filed all of my own applications, years before I went to law school. The application will be reviewed by an examiner and if there’s an issue, you’ll have an opportunity to correct errors or clarify information. I’ve found the examiners to be very patient and helpful.
Okay, so I think I’ve made the case for filing your copyright application. Save the stamps for bills and Christmas cards and take a look at Copyright Office’s website – it’s very helpful.