“Poor Man’s Copyright” – Why the Envelope Method Doesn’t Work

by Mike on 3/24/2007

in Best of Release, Copycat Law, First We Kill All the Lawyers, Perpetual Beta : Release

One of the most persistent myths in the area of copyright law is the notion that wrapping something in an envelope, mailing it to yourself, and then holding onto the delivered envelope somehow helps you protect your legal rights as the creator of a work. The “envelope method” not only doesn’t work, using it may result in you losing several important protections that other copyright holders enjoy.

The Theory

The argument in favor of the so-called “poor man’s copyright” goes something like this: under current U.S. and international law, copyright begins at the moment the work is created. No registration is required for a work to enjoy copyright protection under the law.

So far, so good. But proponents suggest using the envelope method as a way to prove that: 1) you are the author of the work; and 2) that you created it on or before the date of mailing. Once you can prove those two things, the argument goes, you can enforce your rights in court. Unfortunately, this part is wrong.

Your Envelope Doesn’t Prove a Thing

The only thing a postmarked envelope proves is that someone mailed an envelope. Not even a certified mail delivery can prove what was inside the envelope when it was mailed. But, some would say, opening a sealed envelope will show what’s inside. Yes, but that doesn’t prove that it was in the envelope when it was mailed. There are numerous tricks one can use, including sending the envelope unsealed, or steaming it open afterwards, or other tricks a careful Internet search might reveal, to put something in an envelope after it has been mailed. It still comes down to the testimony of the putative copyright holder claiming that the envelope contained what it appears to.

No authority will take the envelope method seriously. One federal court called it “bizarre” and “mysterious” when a songwriter tried to sue Mariah Carey, claiming that Carey had stolen a song the plaintiff wrote and had mailed to himself. The court ridiculed the supposed author, even saying, “As to the mysterious envelope purportedly containing a copy of the… composition, [he] has made no effort to explain why he would have mailed a copy of the composition to himself in 1989.” Even the Copyright Office advises the public that the envelope method has no legal significance and does not substitute for actual registration.

Registration Requirement

Not only is the envelope method lousy proof, it doesn’t save you the minor trouble of having to register your copyright if you want to sue an infringer. In order to enforce a copyright in court, the author must first register it. This registration is usually inexpensive, but an author who needs a quick turnaround time in order to file a lawsuit may have to pay as much as ten times the normal fee for an “expedited” registration. Ultimately, the envelope method costs much more money than it saves.

Benefits of Registration

Using the envelope method may also waive several important benefits. First, the registration itself provides proof of the date the work was created. Second, an author who registers a copyright before infringement can sue not only for actual damages, but also additional statutory damages, which in some cases may climb to the six-figure range for each violation. Finally, an author who registers before infringement can also recover the reasonable attorney’s fees incurred pursuing a lawsuit. The envelope method does not allow for any of these.

There’s Only One Place to Mail It

If you’re serious about protecting your copyright in something you’ve created, don’t cut corners by using the envelope method. For relatively small fee, and only a few minutes filling out a simple form, you can register your work with the Copyright Office itself, giving you the peace of mind to know that you can enjoy the full protections of the law if someone tries to steal your work. If you’re not serious, then don’t waste the time, the postage, or the envelope.


This document is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for the advice of an attorney licensed to practice in your area.

Creative Commons License This work (this post only) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this post as long as you do not change it in any way and you include this attribution: Written by Michael Alex Wasylik, 2007.

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  • http://www.quibbling.net/ Tiffany

    Since the Copyright Office’s registration information says that individual additions and revisions created on different days must be registered individually, I would be interested in how one can reasonably protect one’s blog- slap a copyright notice on it and only register individual posts as they’re infringed? Send a flurry of registration packets to the Copyright Office every couple of months?

  • http://www.quibbling.net Tiffany

    Since the Copyright Office’s registration information says that individual additions and revisions created on different days must be registered individually, I would be interested in how one can reasonably protect one’s blog- slap a copyright notice on it and only register individual posts as they’re infringed? Send a flurry of registration packets to the Copyright Office every couple of months?

  • http://perpetualbeta.com/ Mike

    1. A copyright notice is not required for copyright protection.

    2. Registration post-infringement allows the author to sue, but does not allow recovery of certain remedies like attorney’s fees and statutory damages.

    3. Got a link for that reference to the Copyright Office information that you’re citing? It may not be worded correctly – for example, most novels are created and revised over a span of several weeks, months, or years. Based on what you’re saying, each daily revisions would require separate registration and I’m fairly confident that’s not the case.

  • http://perpetualbeta.com Mike

    1. A copyright notice is not required for copyright protection.

    2. Registration post-infringement allows the author to sue, but does not allow recovery of certain remedies like attorney’s fees and statutory damages.

    3. Got a link for that reference to the Copyright Office information that you’re citing? It may not be worded correctly – for example, most novels are created and revised over a span of several weeks, months, or years. Based on what you’re saying, each daily revisions would require separate registration and I’m fairly confident that’s not the case.

  • http://www.quibbling.net/ Tiffany

    From the “more examples” popup linked from this page:

    http://www.copyright.gov/register/literary.html

    “Many works transmitted online are revised or updated frequently. For individual works, however, there is no blanket registration available to cover revisions published on multiple dates. A revised version for each daily revision may be registered separately, provided the revisions constitute copyrightable authorship. A separate application filing fee would be required for each separately published update.”

    And then from the Circular they refer you to (http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ66.html):

    “For all online works other than computer programs and databases, the registration will extend only to the copyrightable content of the work as received in the Copyright Office and identified as the subject of the claim. The application for registration should exclude any material that has been previously registered or published or that is in the public domain. For published works, the registration should be limited to the content of the work asserted to be published on the date given on the application.”

    And then, if that really is worded poorly, how does the Copyright Office expect someone like me supposed to know that?

  • http://www.quibbling.net Tiffany

    From the “more examples” popup linked from this page:

    http://www.copyright.gov/register/literary.html

    “Many works transmitted online are revised or updated frequently. For individual works, however, there is no blanket registration available to cover revisions published on multiple dates. A revised version for each daily revision may be registered separately, provided the revisions constitute copyrightable authorship. A separate application filing fee would be required for each separately published update.”

    And then from the Circular they refer you to (http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ66.html):

    “For all online works other than computer programs and databases, the registration will extend only to the copyrightable content of the work as received in the Copyright Office and identified as the subject of the claim. The application for registration should exclude any material that has been previously registered or published or that is in the public domain. For published works, the registration should be limited to the content of the work asserted to be published on the date given on the application.”

    And then, if that really is worded poorly, how does the Copyright Office expect someone like me supposed to know that?

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