Music Business

The Poor Man’s Copyright For Songwriters: Separating Truth From Fiction

by Clay Mills
Oct 6, 2023

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 $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. 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, “Don’t bother with all that, just email the song recording to yourself or a friend. As if, these solutions will you afford you full protection.”

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.’ But, 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 own the copyright of your song by writing it, you do NEED to register your work. It’s the only way to take advantage of the statutory damages rule. That rule 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 if someone steals your work and profits from your song? The bottom line is—for full protection—you’ll need to officially register your song at the US Copyright Office.

What about copyrighting your songs as a group or collection?

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. Therefore, it’s best to do your research before applying this method. The major downside is the law allows only one statutory damages award per registration, regardless of how many infringements have occurred.  So, if you register a group of 12 songs on an album, you can only sue for damages for ONE of the songs.

songtown- poor man's copyright music

Even if the entire album was stolen by another artist. If you register all the songs separately, you can file 12 different cases and collect damages for all 12 songs.

As a long-time professional songwriter, I can tell you that it is 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. In practice here in the real world, I have written several thousands songs in my career, so I’ve made the personal choice not to register an expensive copyright on every song I write. I do it when an artist is going to record one of my songs. Most pros I work with have come to the same conclusion. This isn’t legal advice for you. Just sharing personally how I’ve decided to run my own business over the years .

Also, if you are co-writing songs you can find specific info about collaborators and split-sheets in the book “The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.

* Remember, always consult a music attorney with any legal questions you have regarding your songs.

Write On! ~CM

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.


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