--Subtitle - What is the cheapest & most simplistic proof an idea belongs to me that will hold up in court. Is my (explained below) example still good? Is there a better way?

When I come up with ideas I publish them on my site if I find them good enough to showcase my talent, entertain, inform or advise my readers. Sometimes I get consulting-gigs from readers as a side-benefit to this content-- an informational piece, a multimedia creation or a how-to. garner special attention, especially if the content is hard to find, piece-together or outright non-existent on the Web.

I don't give away EVERYTHING --- BIG ideas; (novels, screenplays, business-models, security-systems, applications, marketing-methods, inventions, ....) -- I keep under my hat.

When I took Media Law courses in college, the professor said the "easiest and cheapest way to prove and idea belongs to ME is to print it out, sign & date it (in blue pen - 'natch) then mail it to myself and leave it sealed."

In the event of third-party-profit-via-plagiarism, --the writer, by producing the env. can prove ownership of intellectual property. Mainly because the envelope-

  • is sealed
  • has a Federal postmark w/ date
  • contains the original content with a signed & dated sig inside AND
  • a court officer can verify these things easily for an adjudicator/jury

Q: Short of hiring a &c attorney. Is this still the best way to prove an idea, is, in fact, originally from the pen/mind of THIS writer?*

--Note: please don't hold-back your answer if you are not an officer-of-the-court or if you feel the need to pad with "I'm not a lawyer so..." or "Laws may be different in your jurisdiction..."1etc.

I GET IT. What counts is agreement or disagreement with "mailing content to myself," as an alternative to the &c process. WHY you think this is a good way to "cover my a$$," or WHY NOT or an alternative suggestion also appreciated.

1If you wish to research jurisdiction-specific. I am a publisher in Los Angeles, California.

EDIT in reply, "what's to stop someone from sending an empty, unsealed envelope to themselves through the mail, getting it dated, then stuffing whatever they want into it at a later date?"

  • It is a serious felony and a Federal crime, enough to stop me.
  • seals are old technology, as old as wax and fire, they are diff to tamper w/
  • VOID! it is not possible to get an unsealed envelope postmarked in the US.

3 Answers 3


It's a bit shocking that someone teaching a media law course recommended "Poor Man's Copyright" - it's been generally discredited by pretty much everyone, including the US Copyright office. (http://copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#poorman) - And, really, if you think about it - what's to stop someone from sending an empty, unsealed envelope to themselves through the mail, getting it dated, then stuffing whatever they want into it at a later date?

So, if you're in the US, and you're genuinely worried about this, you probably want to register your work with the copyright office. That seems to be the clearest proof available.

However, you may want to look more closely at what's able to be copyrighted. It sounds to me like you're trying to claim copyright on ideas or concepts, and those aren't eligible. You can claim copyright on the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. (eg. a story about a dragon that poops golden eggs could be copyrighted, but if someone else writes their own story about a dragon that poops golden eggs, using your idea but their words and structure, that's not a copyright violation.)

So that's the factual portion of my answer. The opinion portion? Relax. Ideas get better when they are shared freely, and if someone takes one of your ideas and creates something with it, that doesn't prevent you from using the same idea and creating something else with it. Neither one of your is violating copyright, and you're just being part of the creative community.

  • Also, the courts won't even hear your case if you haven't at least applied for a copyright. And when it comes to copyright, the first to claim it is usually the one to get it, even if there is good evidence that you didn't create it. The Copyright Office is not in the business of determining if you are the legitimate first creator; they are in the business of assuring that you are the first to apply for a copyright. Regarding ideas, they can be patented, but not copyrighted. Patenting ideas alone is difficult, but doable, but mostly cost prohibitive. A copyright is $200. A patent is $2000.
    – user15479
    Oct 11, 2015 at 23:09
  • 1
    I don't think that's accurate, fredsbend... you don't have to APPLY for copyright - copyright exists, and is legally enforceable, as soon as you write down your work (in all countries signatory to the Bern Convention, which is most of them). There are differences in how important it is to REGISTER copyright from country to country, and there are certainly more benefits in the US than elsewhere, but courts will still hear the case for unregistered copyright. And I think $200 is pretty high for registering in the US.
    – Kate S.
    Oct 12, 2015 at 3:01
  • 1
    The rules may be different for different people - I think you might be right that there's something about US citizens needing to register before suing. (I'm Canadian, so I may have filtered through that lens).
    – Kate S.
    Oct 12, 2015 at 12:27
  • 1
    According to The Copyright Handbook (from Nolo Press), your work is copyrighted when you express it in some tangible form. But in order to sue for copyright infringement in the US, you must register. Timely registration (see the book) enables you to request "statutory damages" (see the book!), which can be substantial. Untimely registration (e.g. after you discover the infringement) limits damages to actual losses and the infringer's actual gains. The Copyright Handbook is an amazing resource. Chock full of information, and surprisingly easy to read. Buy it. Read it. Read it again. Oct 13, 2015 at 18:34
  • 1
    You don't have links or cites for those cases, do you? I've never read about a successful use of Poor Man's Copyright, so I'm intrigued...
    – Kate S.
    Oct 23, 2015 at 10:24

Ideas in of themselves are not intellectual property. What is intellectual property is the expression of your ideas. In other words, the prose text that incorporates them. In fact, the moment you write something is already copyright to you.

Frankly it is a complete waste of time to attempt to hang on to your ideas as belonging to yourself. If for no other reason than there is no legal basis for making ideas intellectual property. Concentrate putting your ideas in prose, whether that is fiction, play-scripts or film scripts, and send them to publishers or whoever makes their business in your chosen medium..


The envelope seems like a lot of work for an unreliable result.

Here's a much simpler and more reliable method:

  • E-mail the data to yourself.

The mail server's site (e.g. Google's gmail) could guarantee that you had no opportunity to make changes to their data or metadata.

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