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Copyright Urban Legend: Mailing Your Writing To Yourself

As a writer, knowing the basics of copyright law can help you protect your writing before signing your rights away. Copyrighting your books, stories, novels, and poems is rather straightforward. Whether your work is on paper or posted on the Internet, your writing is automatically protected by copyright as long as it’s in a physical form that others can read. The fact that you are reading these words means that this material is copyrighted and has been since the moment it was printed or saved to disk. For today’s creative writers, copyright protection is a built-in bonus.

Copyright is a form of protection for creative and original works (literary, musical, artistic, among others) that are fixed in a “tangible form of expression.” This simply means that what you’ve created—whether it’s a sketch, a sculpture, a short story, or a poem—is intellectual property, and it is protected by copyright as long as it can be viewed (or communicated) in a fixed form. It is intended to protect, among other artistic works, literary work, both published and unpublished, giving the author the exclusive, legal right to copy and distribute the work. No one, including literary agents or editors, is allowed to copy, distribute, display, or sell copyrighted work without permission.

Some writers believe that mailing their manuscripts to themselves is a theft-protection plan against anyone who would steal their creative writing. The misconception is that an unopened envelope with a canceled postmark will have some legal status in the courtroom, but this is simply not the case.

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Anyone who creates an original creative work may claim copyright. However—and this is unclear for many writers—you do not have to do anything to secure a copyright for your work. Once the words you are reading are down on paper or saved to your hard drive (fixed in a tangible form of expression), they are automatically protected by copyright and immediately become the property of the author. What you write today will be protected for the length of your life, plus at least 70 years.

So why would a writer formally copyright his or her projects if it’s not necessary? By filing for copyright protection, you would be entitled to legal fees in the event that you were sued regarding the work but won the case. Unless you’re worried about lawsuits, a formal copyright may be overkill.

If you do decide to register with the Copyright Office, you’ll find it an easy process. If you want the facts of your copyright on public record, take the time to officially register. You’ll need to pay a fee, fill out a simple form (depending on the type of work you are registering), and send a copy of your work. For the most current fee schedule and other how-to guidelines, call (202) 707-3000, or go to www.copyright.gov.

Learn more: What Is Considered Previously Published Writing?

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice: for questions about copyright law specifics, contact a lawyer. To find out how we can help you get your work published by managing the submission process, call Writer’s Relief today!

15 Responses to Copyright Urban Legend: Mailing Your Writing To Yourself

  1. This is really interesting, You’re a verry skilled blogger.
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  2. Poor man’s (c) means less than nothing in a court of law. If you should ever need to defend (or prosecute) an infringement, and your Exhibit A is not an LOC registration number, your task will be much more difficult.

  3. This is a great question, Donagh. Does anyone out there have an answer?

  4. Just wondering if you know if the law in the UK/Europe is similar? Is my work protected as soon as I save it as a file?

  5. I’d like to know if i send my work to another person for their critique, does google claim de facto ownership of my work, or is it just if you post on website?

  6. I agree with the writer, except about using the copyright symbol. If nothing else, it warns any and all that you take your copyright seriously.

    Of course, complicating the issue of copyright is Google’s recent announcement that they are changing their terms of service to include clauses that basically mean they become the de facto owner of all intellectual property that is transmitted using their service. Don’t know if it’s been challenged since the announcement, but it’s a little scary. Mostl publicly it impacts people who post family photos online, which then become Google’s property to use in advertising promotions free of charge. But, it could also come to affect other intellectual properties that are shared online. It’s one of those headscratchers that I don’t think is going to be sorted out or resolved any time soon — at least, not on this side of the Atlantic.

  7. I agree with what Gloria said. Even if legal mumbo-jumbo is set aside, if the poor man’s copyright gives a writer peace of mind, it is a cheap price to pay.

    I’m in a writer’s circle, and everyone there is -terrified- of someone online stealing their work. They won’t post a single word on the Internet, and it’s hard to even convince them to hand out printed copies for those of us in the group to read.

    When I tell them I post my work online for feedback, they all look at my like I’m crazy.

  8. True, mailing a document to yourself does not give you a particular legal standing in a court of law. However, it does provide evidence that can help you prove your case.

    In the 1970’s when my attorney advised me to mail a printout of the software I was developing to myself at various stages of development, it was to provide evidence of what I produced and when. If I had been involved in a copyright infringement lawsuit, it would have provided proof that I had developed the software and not just copied it from someone else.

  9. I always hate having to deal with copyright issues, there is always so many loopholes that you have to make sure you cover! But I do like the information you presented me with, I didn’t know copyright protection was automatic.

  10. This is directly from the US Copyright Office Web site’s FAQ:

    When is my work protected?
    Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. A tangible form would be work that is printed on paper or electronically saved to a disk, for example.

    Do I have to register with your office to be protected?
    No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work.

    Why should I register my work if copyright protection is automatic?
    Registration is recommended for a number of reasons. Many choose to register their works because they wish to have the facts of their copyright on the public record and have a certificate of registration. Registered works may be eligible for statutory damages and attorney’s fees in successful litigation. Finally, if registration occurs within 5 years of publication, it is considered prima facie evidence in a court of law.

    Hope that helps!

  11. "you do not have to do anything to secure a copyright for your work" -I had no idea this was the case, i thought you had to make it public somehow.

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