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

 

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 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 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.

What about copyrighting your songs as a group or collection?

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. 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. 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 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

*Clay Mills is an 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, 2 time Grammy nominee, and the co-founder of SongTownUSA

36 thoughts on “The Poor Man’s Copyright For Songwriters: Separating Truth From Fiction

  1. I wrote five writings and I am green, so I am about to submit them as a group, under Group of Songs, to Copyright USA and I am from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (I accidentally rhyme all the time especially when I am angry, hee, hee). Do you think it is safe to send my five writings to Songwriters Group without copyrighting them at all?, or is that a bad idea, as I own my songs as soon as I wrote them, but there are all kinds of mischief people out there.

  2. In 2002, while taking a business trip, my wife & I, along with 2 of our children, wrote a “sequel” to a very well known, once popular song. Like everyone else, I’m sure we wrote a hit. We did the “poor man’s copyright” and placed the envelope in a safe. This proved to be a blessing as saving files “in the cloud”, was not normal then, and over time, as our computers crashed and were replaced, the lyrics were gone.

    In 2010, I took the envelope out of the safe and spent $175 to sit down with a copyright lawyer and go through the legalities. He opened the envelope and there was our precious words which otherwise we would not have had access to.

    About a month later, I received a letter showing the four of us as the copyright owners. We even contacted the original artist who liked it, but was no longer interested in pursuing it. The market was over.

    I doubt we will ever record the song, but we still own the copyright. I’m thankful to the lawyer for teaching me what I could and could not do. Too many people are online asking the “internet people” for legal advice on how to get away with theft. It’s too bad more people don’t go out spend a few dollars and stay legal. How many of you can go to the next class reunion or family reunion and tell people you own a copyright in the US Patent & Copyright Office?

  3. Wow, so glad you wrote about this! For years, I either did the poor man’s copyright or copyrighted a group of songs, when I could. It saved money and I thought I was protected. This really opened my eyes to the legalities. Thank you so much! As always, you’ve got our backs.

  4. Hi Clay, Marty, and everyone else here. I’m not sure if you would know the answer to this or not, but I’m going to ask anyway. I’m a South African, but country music here is unfortunately, not as popular as in the USA. Therefore, I’m writing lyrics for US country musicians, and want to enquire if I could register my lyrics in the USA or not? If someone can advise me, I would be very grateful.
    Thanks, Priscilla.

  5. Thanks for sharing the heads up. However, I believe it’s important to understand that a copyright is not the sole protectorate in the event of alleged plagiarism. A writer must provide substantial proof to court that plagiarist had access to composition.

  6. Thanks Clay. This is good to know, and really does make sense.
    I have actually mailed myself a copy of my song and still have it unopened, lol.
    Guess I’ll need to do something about that now! ?
    Appreciate the information.

    Tina

  7. Great overview of best practices regarding copyright of a song(s) to ensure protection under U.S. copyright law. Although there are some pros & cons if you have collections, as some comments asserted, it is still best to registrer your works to access protection under the law for infringement.

  8. Hey Clay, isn’t it common that most publishers of merit wouldn’t want to touch your song ( i.e. cut it) unless you warranted it that it was solely yours, by showing them (or at least giving scouts honor) that your copyright is filed?

    And as some may want a short hold or a quick cut, they don’t prefer waiting those 3 to 6 months for you to get you copyright certificate. So best to copyright a pitchable song and do it early before pitching it around?

    1. Hi David, I’ve never had anyone in the music business ask if I had a copyright on a song. A publisher would expect you to be presenting songs you own and would not typically ask you that question.

      CM

  9. As I tell our groups, there’s no Copyright Police to enforce your born copyright you have simply from your writing a song..

    Your first action is to ask for an injunction which already out the gate you’ll best need a filed copyright as proof to stop the other artist/publisher from further disbursement of “their” song that sounds a lot like yours.

    And if they’ve filed a copyright of their song, unbeknownst to them that it was actually YOUR song, well……. a sealed envelope might not be admissible when asking for damages.

    Poor man copyright only seems to help your friends and those you can convince you had the song “first” to help you give the perpetrator the evil stink eye, but that’s about its limit.

  10. good read..and advise..we have all our songs protected just as you explained..we paid individually for each one …thanks for sharing with us always Lisa

  11. I have actually mailed a song to myself and still have the sealed envelope. SOOOOO thanks for straightening that one out LOL. In either case I imagine you’d have to spend some significant money proving your burden… if I can barely afford to pay copyrighting what chance to I have of defending it. Maybe there’s a merciful entertainment legal eagle who’d take it on contingency… do you know?

    1. Nic, my experience is that of a pro writer in the US. I have zero experience copyrighting songs in the UK. Best to consult an expert on that! 🙂

      1. I checked with PRS. This is on their website (03.03.2017)

        “Copyright protects original literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works. It allows an original work to be considered a property that is owned by somebody. The relevant UK law is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

        How does copyright work in music?

        When a song or piece of music is written, the person who wrote it owns the copyright and therefore has the right to decide how and when it should be played. Music is released, allowing individuals to purchase a song or piece which they can play at home. However, if an individual wishes to play that piece of music to a wider group of people, for example on their business or organisation’s premises, it is classed as a public performance. If you want to make a public performance you must first seek permission from the copyright owner of that song before you do so. This permission is known as a licence.

        When does copyright begin?
        In music, copyright begins automatically once a piece of music is created then documented or recorded, for example on video, tape or CD or simply writing down the notation of a score.

        How do you protect your music as a songwriter or composer?
        Currently, no official form of registration is available. In the UK, all original music is protected by copyright from the time it is recorded or written down in some format. It is important to be able to prove that you own the copyright of a particular recording. To do this we suggest the following:

        Post a copy of the recording to yourself by special delivery. Clearly mark the envelope so you know what music it holds, but keep it sealed.
        and/or

        Store a copy with your solicitor or bank manager. Remember to keep a receipt and be aware that this method is likely to cost you some money.

    1. Yes, registering a song with your PRO has nothing to do with the copyright. It simply means you are making ASCAP or BMI aware of the song so they will collect monies on your behalf. Much like turning in a time car at your job. 🙂

      CM

  12. Great advice, Clay!
    To me, it’s a matter of believing the creation is “good enough.”

    If it is good enough, I want anyone to be able to find it with full legal protection..
    The idea that someone uses it (yeah!) and then can’t find the owner to compensate isn’t worth the risk to me.

  13. Clay, the “sending the song to yourself by sealed registered mail” dodge goes at least back to the 1950s. And it wasn’t any more valid then than it is now. But people will swallow anything, apparently. 🙁

  14. Clay And Marty are pros , I never worry about it , I use to.
    What if someone steals my song which I highly doubt , Hire a big shot lawyer to fight with them , right
    Most country songs are similar to me , a few stand out which are real different in melody’s
    Maybe The G chord can sue the C chord ,…..I object your honor

    1. Correct if I’m wrong …
      If a publisher accepts your block of songs to hold and market, they then own the rights to your complete block of copyrighted songs in the group of “savings” … If another publisher desires a different song in your block than the actual 1 song publisher A is working … Now both publishers negotiate a side sale of your songs listed within same copyright …
      So, your songs now are in a battle between publishers, at your loss of power to promote …
      A lax publisher can keep your good songs and not give up any of your possible other “hits”
      Thoughts?

    2. The only con I have ever heard of is that if that song ever gets picked up for radio airplay then that entire collection has to be played to get royalties. OF course this was many years ago, and the laws may have changed. However, when you do newer versions of a song you want to copyright the new version as well. If I am in error please tell me.

      1. Absolutely not correct. Your copyright or lack thereof has no bearing on your ability to collect royalties through a PRO.

  15. Absolutely right. Burdon of proof is with the infringed. It’s much better if your work is sitting in a federal library than in an email which could be simply altered by changing the date in a server or an envelope that could be stamped with a fraudulent date.

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