Songwriters ‘Poor Man’s Copyright’: Separating Truth From Fiction

DownloadThe "poor man's copyright" wherein artists mail or email themselves some form of their song fixed in a tangible medium, is often thrown around in creative music circles as a substitute for an official copyright via the US Copyright Office, but just how effective of a substitute it really is often debated. Here we look at the truth of how effective a PMC actually is. 


Guest Post by Clay Mills on DIY Musician

For years I have heard the phrase “Poor Man’s Copyright” thrown around in songwriting circles. The term is often brought up as a cheap alternative to an official $35 or $55 copyright from the US Copyright Office.

Mailing a song to yourself…

Statements are thrown out like: “Don’t bother to pay the money for the real deal when all you have to do is make a simple recording, seal it in a self addressed envelope, and mail it to yourself.” Quickly, someone else jumps in and says, “Don’t bother with all that, just email the song recording to yourself or a friend. That gives you proof that you wrote it.”

I think much of the misconceptions around this arise from the fact that Copyright legislation, which took effect on Jan. 1, 1978, dictates that all works are automatically copyrighted from the time they are created and “fixed” in some recognizable way. Meaning: you own the copyright the moment you create your song. BUT……

The real truth about a poor man’s copyright…

The federal copyright office explains on its website, “The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a ‘poor man’s copyright.’ There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.”

Copyright1The real truth is that even though you have copyrighted your song just by writing it, you do NEED to register your work so you can be eligible to take advantage of the statutory damages rule that allows courts to fine people who violate your copyright.

What’s the point of claiming you own the copyright if you can’t be compensated as much as possible if someone steals your work and profits from your song? Bottom line is—for full protection—you’ll need to officially register your song at the US Copyright Office.

I know some people who wait until they have a small group of songs to copyright them as a collection, rather than pay to file each song individually. This does save them quite a bit of money! But… it has a few disadvantages, so best to do your research before applying this method.

As a long-time professional songwriter, I can tell you that it is very rare for someone to steal a song. Most artists and writers want the world to hear their own ideas. But, occasionally someone does stoop low and borrows melody and/or lyrics from someone else’s song. To fully protect yourself, you’ll need more than a poor man’s version of copyright. Get the real-deal.

More info can be found at: Copyright.gov

  • Always consult a music attorney with any legal questions you have regarding your songs.

Write On! ~Clay.

Clay Mills is an 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. His songs have been recorded by such artist as Lady Antebellum, Darius Rucker, Babyface, Reba McEntire, and Kimberly Locke. He has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Follow him at SongTown.com, claymills.com, and Facebook.

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