Sunday, October 01, 2006

Poor Man's Copyright Rears Ugly Head at Ininfity Conference

Copyright 2006 Tonya M. Evans-Walls. All rights reserved.

Dear Friends,

I just returned from the Seventh Annual Infinity Publishing "Express Yourself" Writer's Conference in Valley Forge, PA. I presented two workshops on literary law, one titled "Can I Do That?", and another titled "Legal Matters that Matter to Writers." The conference and workshops were extremely well attended and received and I highly recommend this conference to writers who seek to develop their craft and to learn about the business of writing and publishing from the experts. I was invited to do the same thing in San Diego in January during my national book tour, so be sure to visit the Events Page of my website at for the details.

Some of the most prominent people in independent publishing presented workshops this year and have done so for years. The likes of Dan Poynter (guru of self-publishing), John Kremer (affordable marketing), Brian Jud (special market sales), Bonnie Neubauer (creative writing), Penny Sansevieri (marketing), and Jennifer Thompson (web design), just to name a few. I encourage you to visit each of their websites often. Each person provides a wealth of invaluable information about how not only to survive the publishing biz, but to thrive and succeed beyond your wildest dreams! They are my publishing mentors and have all helped me in their own way to propel my career to higher heights.

Well, that is the good part of the story. The rest is somewhat of a rant about my nemesis; it reared its ugly head at this conference, proving my work is never done. And who is this nemesis you ask? It's not a person but a belief -- an erroneous belief that threatens to diminish or even harm the valuable copyrights owned by everyone who believes in it. It is the dreaded Poor Man's Copyright myth.

I hesistate to even use initial caps for the words. Seems like I give too much power to this all too pervasive myth. But I must admit it is indeed powerful because so many people believe it is the end-all be-all of copyright protection and far better (or at least just as good) as registering one's work with the Copyright Office. Well it isn't. I say this at every workshop and in every class. And I will continue to do so until I take my last breath. And here's why the mail myth is just that -- a myth!

(excerpt from Copyright Companion for Writers, by Tonya Evans-Walls)

I am sure you have heard of it. Virtually every writer has. And maybe you are among the considerable number of writers and industry professionals who not only believe the Poor Man's Copyright myth but also repeat it as if it were the law. This is the most pervasive and destructive myth in the publishing industry. The Poor Man's Copyright, also known as the Mail Myth, is the mistaken belief that a copyright is created or somehow protected when you send a copy of the work to yourself in the mail. If you learn nothing else from this book, you must learn this: the mail-yourself-the-manuscript-and-then-you'll-be-protected belief is a myth. It is simply not true, and I do not want anyone who reads these words to perpetuate this myth for one more moment. Rest assured, the only thing you will prove when you mail your work to yourself is that the post office is still in the business of delivering mail.

The Mail Myth evolved in the days before the 1989 amendment to the Copyright Act. Under prior copyright law (see chapter 1 for a brief history of copyright law), authors were required to include a copyright symbol on their work in order to create a copyright. Many rights were lost under the old law because of the strict requirement of the copyright symbol and other formalities. Writers believed that the only way to prove that the work existed on a particular date was to mail a copy to themselves. But these days this is neither necessary nor helpful when it comes to actually registering your work. This statement is confirmed by the Copyright Office and can be reviewed at the FAQ (frequently asked questions) page of the Copyright Office Web site,

Simply put, the action of mailing a copy of your manuscript to yourself does not offer any additional protection beyond that which already exists once your idea is fixed and thus your work is created. Additionally, it does not constitute a registration of your copyright. A question I've been asked repeatedly over the years in response to my attempts to dispel the Mail Myth is this: "But doesn't the postmark prove that my work existed on a certain date? Couldn't this postmark be my 'smoking gun' to prove I am the owner of the work contained in the unopened envelope?" Even if a postmarked manuscript has some evidentiary value, the Copyright Act requires you to register your copyright before you have the right to file an infringement suit. Simply put, there's no way to present your "smoking gun" without first securing your copyright registration.

But registration is easy (no need for a lawyer) and inexpensive (only $45 as of this writing)—a small price to pay to preserve valuable rights (think of it as the cheapest insurance policy you'll ever qualify for). So use the same stamps you would have used to mail your work to yourself and mail a copyright form, fee, and sample to the Copyright Office instead.

I encourage you to share this information with your friends and colleagues and feel free to post it on your own blog or in your newsletters. I just ask that you re-print the information in its entirety, including the byline below. Help me to help authors know the truth about their rights and how best to protect them. In the next post, I'll discuss why registration is so important. For now, I must rest. I know tomorrow I will have to face my nemesis again. And I will need all of my energy to continue to fight the good fight!

Tonya M. Evans-Walls, Esq., intellectual property and literary attorney, and author of Copyright Companion for Writers and Literary Law Guide for Authors.