Wherefore Thou Art #12
For the past couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of appearing regularly on WAMC’s VoxPop program as part of the Copyright Forum, where artists Polly Law, Bill Westwood, and I answer listeners’ call-in questions about copyright law. Every time we’re on the air, we get questions that stem from these copyright myths. Debunking these myths is important to help creators protect their works, and to avoid innocent, but potentially costly, infringement of copyrighted works.
As we’ve said about a thousand times on the radio show, no. Perhaps “hell, no!” would be more apropos. Poor man’s copyright is a myth. Having your work in an unopened, postmarked envelope gives you extremely limited protections, if any. It might provide some scant proof that you owned a copy of the thing in the envelope as of the date of the postmark, assuming that you can convince somebody that you didn’t fake the whole thing. And you only have one shot at presenting your cherished “proof,” when you dramatically open the envelope! After that, it’s over!
If you’ve created something you’re going to take to market, is going to be reproduced or distributed, or is likely to be in the public eye, you should seriously consider registering the work. Registration only costs $30.00, and one application (and one fee) can usually cover a collection or group of works. Registering your copyrights gives you some real protections; the “poor man’s copyright” provides little more than a false sense of security and illusory protections.
Another copyright myth is that if somebody else registers a work before you, they get the copyright and you lose it. Wrong! As I just said, you own your copyright upon the work’s creation. Period. Ownership of a copyright is not a matter of a race to the Copyright Office. If somebody registers your work before you, you can invalidate the earlier registration. If there’s evidence that the other person knowingly lied in the first registration about their ownership of the work, that person could be criminally liable as well. I recently had a singer-songwriter come to me complaining that she’d “lost the copyright” to one of her songs after a crooked record producer registered the copyright to the song in his name. In fact, she hadn’t lost anything. I had her register the song in her name with the Copyright Office, and sent a strongly worded letter to the producer, advising him that his claim of copyright was invalid and that if he did anything with the song we’d have him in court in a heartbeat.
© 2004 Paul C. Rapp
This article originally appeared in The Artful Mind, and is intended to provide the reader with an awareness of copyright law and not legal advice.