ou could have heard about the “poor man’s copyright” anywhere: from an older relative, from a friend, from a high school English teacher. They find out that you’ve been working on a novel and they want to help, so they tell you to mail it to yourself once it’s done. That way, even if you don’t do anything with the novel for years (or if those snooty literary agents and publishing houses are incapable of recognizing genius when they see it), you still have a copy bearing an official federal date—and no one can steal your spot on the New York Times best-seller list.
It’s a nice idea, but the problem with the poor man’s copyright is that it doesn’t work. The humorless 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.”
But if you’re a starving artist, don’t worry. Copyright legislation that took effect on Jan. 1, 1978, dictates that all works are automatically copyrighted from the time that they are created and “fixed” in some recognizable way.