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"one easy way to timestamp an idea is to email it to yourself using something like gmail. Since you are not able to falsify gmail's timestamps, you can use it as evidence of the timing of an idea" said Ben I. in a comment to one of my (closed) questions (https://cseducators.stackexchange.com/q/6963/10585).

Would this be foolproof? If it is, then there seems to be no point in using trusted timestamp authorities. If it is, it is an ingenious and elegant solution to a problem quite a few writers grapple with, especially if not very good with computers, and hence with cryptography.

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  • Tangential aside: is this really "a problem many writers grapple with"? Or just a few? – DM_with_secrets May 27 at 23:11
  • Well, please clarify whether you mean the free gmail service, or a paid variant. I presume in the free gmail service's user agreement (just like in any other free service's, usually) it says that they are entitled to suspend or delete your account at any time, perhaps even without providing a reason. Now I'm ready to acknowledge that this may happen extremely seldomly; yet, I feel the prospect of losing (access to) one's intended "device of proof" would still count as an important aspect when evaluating "foolproofness". – Levente May 28 at 4:55
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    Having your ideas stolen is not something you need to worry too much about in creative writing. The work (and value) is in the execution of the idea (aka the actual writing). Two writers with the same idea would still produce two widely different stories. – erikric May 28 at 7:30
  • @erikric If by 'creative writing' you mean 'fiction', consider how Swift is credited with being the first to describe aerial bombardment in Gulliver's Travels, which is a work of fiction. So I don't agree that the value (or even the 'work', depending on what you mean by that) is always entirely in the execution, although I know what you mean. In any case, at present I am writing only nonfiction. – Security Every Day May 28 at 17:51
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This is the technological equivalent of the old urban legend that you should mail yourself a copy and use the cancellation to prove the date.

This is known as poor man's copyright and it has no legal value. For one thing, it doesn't prove the work was original with you. You have to register if you want the protection.

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Email can provide a good enough timestamp for the file, proving that you were (or rather your account was) in possession of it at that time, assuming that you can still log into the account to see that. Given that the email server is hosted by Google, there is next to no chance that you would have been able to tamper with the timestamps on their end, and I don't think it's possible to edit your document after the fact. Still, it's not the same as what a timestamp authority does because it's not secure cryptographic timestamping.

Of course, if your purpose was to be able to take someone to court for copyright infringement, then it won't help you. Neither will anything similar: this is called a "poor man's copyright" and "there is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration" as the US Copyright office tells you. They'll also remind you that you cannot copyright an idea, only your specific depiction of the idea.

You owned the copyright to your words the second you put them down. But you only gain a number of legal protections when you register your work for the price of $35-$55. According to the American Bar Association:

An author cannot bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement, however, without a certificate of registration from the Copyright Office. [... U]nless the application for registration of copyrights is filed with the Copyright Office within three months of first publication of the work or prior to infringement, certain valuable remedies are not available to the copyright holder—including the right to receive statutory damages up to $150,000 per work infringed, attorney fees and costs, injunctions, and impounding and disposition of infringing articles.

The difference between statutory damages and other damages is important: there are many cases where those other damages will amount to nothing. And if you didn't need attorney fees to be covered then you had more than enough money to get a proper registration in the first place.

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  • I am not trying to copyright an idea, only to get a way to prove that I was the first to think of it (and/or publish it). – Security Every Day May 28 at 18:14
  • @SecurityEveryDay Why? – DM_with_secrets Jun 4 at 19:51

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