This week’s guest post comes from freelance writer Lucy Faraday. I found the topic to be quite interesting. I’ve never posted my work to myself, but I do email work to myself quite often. I’d love to hear the thoughts of others on this topic in the comments.
The Myth of Poor Man’s Copyright
There is a prevailing myth that a simple way of establishing copyright of your work is to send a parcel to yourself containing a copy of your manuscript and leave the envelope unopened. Known as poor man’s copyright, this is an unfounded and potentially dangerous misunderstanding that is often maintained amongst inexperienced writers. The belief has absolutely no basis in reality for a number of reasons, as well as perpetuating the falsehood of the necessity of establishing copyright in the first place.
Why You Shouldn’t Believe It
Put simply, a manuscript in an unopened envelope proves nothing except that it was written before the date of the postmark. Ignoring potential issues such as the possibility of envelopes being steamed open or the postmark becoming smudged and illegible, if the envelope were presented as supposed proof of copyright, a number of counterpoints would be immediately raised.
Principally, simply being in possession of a manuscript does not in any way prove that you are the author of it. Sure, you might be able to give a detailed explanation of its contents and quote extensively from it, but that doesn’t prove it didn’t come from somewhere else. For all that can be established, you could have been memorizing from another copy taken before this one was posted in preparation for such a performance.
If such a manuscript were produced as evidence of plagiarism after the publication of a book with suspiciously similar content, it still doesn’t prove you are the original author. It might cast suspicion upon the author of the published work, but it doesn’t do you any good. You could just have easily stolen it from the same person the author did.
Why It May Be Unnecessary
It’s perfectly understandable to be cautious about protecting yourself against plagiarism and theft, but if you are concerned your work being stolen by publishers, you’re worrying for nothing.
Unless the work of a first time author captures the imagination of its target audience to such an extent that it redefines the cultural zeitgeist, their books will not bring in any great profit for quite some time. There are exceptions (the high school exploits of a certain teenage wizard spring to mind) but for the most part it will take years of perseverance both on the part of the authors, the agents and the publishers before any kind of notoriety is attained. The writing industry is one that requires a lot of time, dedication and hard work for all involved, and nobody chooses to get involved with it unless they are passionate about books.
Contrary to popular belief, agencies do not exist to fleece young writers for all they’re worth by stealing their work to make millions from by cutting them out of the loop. The truth is that the work of new writer will not yield much revenue to fleece them of in the first place.
Accusations of theft and plagiarism are the nightmares of any reputable agencies and they will do all they can to avoid such allegations. With the rise of ebooks and the increasing viability of indie publishing, traditional publishing houses are slowly seeing their historical sources of revenue dry up and they would certainly not risk their trading reputation on the chance success of an unknown’s stolen work.
The scam agencies you were warned against are ones that demand up-front payment from the writers before doing any work, and they operate without caring about what you’ve written in the first place. They are in the business of fraud, not theft.
How Copyright Actually Works
Most countries nowadays follow the Berne Convention in establishing copyright, one of the basic provisions of which is that copyright protects an original work from the moment of its creation. The official copyright notice printed on authors’ works strengthens the protection only insofar as warning people against attempting to misappropriate it.
The reason that this may not be so well known is that the US did not sign the agreement until 1989, and the UK, despite signing it in 1887, took over a century getting around to actually implementing it with The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
Although possessing copyright is simple enough, establishing it is another matter entirely, and one considerably more complex than simply being in possession of a self-addressed envelope.
More significant is that most court cases involving copyright infringement are not about establishing a work’s authorship, but rather violations of fair use policies or unauthorized duplication of the work. Additionally, you will only be eligible to claim either how much the infringement made or how much it caused you to lose, which either way will likely be next to nothing.
Poor man’s copyright is particularly useless in this instance as to sue someone for infringement you are first required to have officially registered your work with the relevant government office, the one thing that poor man’s copyright is used to circumvent the cost of doing in the first place. There is not a single recorded instance of poor man’s copyright ever having been used to successfully establish ownership of a work, and the sooner this myth ceases being disseminated, the better off all new writers will be.
EDITED TO ADD:
I just found this great post with information on copyright for authors, including copyrighting your work and fair use: Six Frequently Asked Copyright Questions.