“The Poor Man’s Copyright” goes digital

Let me set the scene: You’ve just written an incisive article, a romantic short story, haunting lyrics, a much needed training programme, drawn a searingly political cartoon strip, devised a novel business proposal, an innovative advertising campaign, created cleverly composed images, written a catchy melody, devised a new dance, coded a new app etc etc etc….

Now – h
ow on earth are you going to protect your work?

First piece of advice here – be very careful what you post to social media and the web.  You may be really chuffed with the content you have created and want the world and their dog to know all about it, and although it will always be your content (unless you assign it – a subject for another day), if you go large on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and the relatively new kid on the block, TikTok, you are actually giving these platforms a very generous licence to allow them, and their users, to use all your hard work.  

If you don’t believe me, and you can avoid falling asleep, read the Terms and Conditions of these platforms relating to the use of your content.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you! 

Second piece of advice – and it’s very difficult to stick to – only post on the above platforms what you can afford to lose – and although a watermark might impact on the visual integrity of your content, do it anyway – all the major image galleries do this – if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for you. 

So, what on earth do you do about copyright?   

All your content – the article, short story, lyrics training programme, cartoon strip, business proposal, ad campaign, images, melody, dance, software  – all qualify for copyright – if your content is original (another topic for another day) and the work has been fixed – ie it’s not just an idea or some random musings that stay in your head.  If you’ve put the blood, sweat and tears into your content and don’t like the idea of someone else infringing it by copying, or worse, claiming it as their own work, copyright is on your side, protecting your rights as the creator.
Yes, copyright in the UK is automatic – as soon as the content is fixed (no longer an idea), is original (not copied) and created by a qualifying person, the work is “copyright” BUT you have to keep on top of protecting your content- right from the moment of creation. 

Surely, I can register the copyright of the content I have created? 

Nope – sorry – If you have a logo, you can register a trademark, if you have an invention, you can apply for a patent or if you have a new design, you can register that as well. You just can’t register copyright. 

“Poor Man’s Copyright” 

The only real remedy available to creators, in the absence of formal, legal registr
ation is what’s known as “Poor Man’s Copyright”. 

To achieve this, the usual practice is for the creators to send to themselves, with recorded and tracked mail, a copy of whatever work it is that they are claiming copyright for.  So, all of the above creations, from the article to the software, could be popped in an envelope and sent to yourself, the creator.  On receipt of the envelope containing the work, it is important that the envelope remain sealed and only opened in presence of witnesses, or in a court, to prove that the work existed at a particular time. 

This method has variations – lodging copies with a solicitor, for example or putting into a secure safety deposit box at a bank. 

Unfortunately, the only aspect of proof required for copyright ownership that this method provides is the existence of the work at a particular time.  It doesn’t prove that the work is original or who the creator is – and these aspects are likely to have to be addressed in the event of infringement proceedings. 

The benefit of the process lies in the fact that you, as a creator, can prove that any subsequent creator, who produces similar content, has copied a work that pre-dates their creations. 

It is unlikely, due to the vast amount of creative works that are created daily in the UK alone, that there will ever be a fully functioning copyright registry. 

Poor Man’s Copyright and the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) 

However, to bring the “poor man’s copyright” into the modern world, WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Office, has introduced “WIPO PROOF”, a secure digital timestamp which can be allocated to any intellectual asset. 

This new service will be of interest to organisations that have Intellectual Property rights that don’t comply with the requirements of any of the official registration processes. This new process will now allow proof of existence at a particular time for copyright, trade secrets, research data and confidential know-how such as formulae, recipes and methods. 

Is it an improvement on the existing paper-based system? Time will tell. Any such system is not without risk, and in the modern age, hackers and power outages might replace the present risk of losing the envelope containing a creator’s precious work.  There is also a nominal charge for the service and the timestamps need to be renewed every two years. 

For further information on this development, go here for more information –  


I personally think it’s a very good idea and well worth exploring by any creators who want to ensure, as far as possible, that they can prove the existence of their creation at any particular time. 

Just one final note to finish – if you are a creator, and you worry about copyright, my advice is always, always, to show, somewhere in your work, that it is your copyright.  Every page of text should be marked “© your name, 2020 – all rights reserved”.  This should be included in all notebooks, sketch books, drafts, work-in-progress, laboratory notes etc.  The more that this is done, the more you and others around you, understand that you are taking copyright seriously. 

Please remember, then, that before using “Poor Man’s Copyright”, to mark all the contents with the copyright symbol, your name, the date of creation and perhaps the phrase, “all rights reserved”. 

One more final note to finish – if you collaborate with anyone in the creation of work, always, always, at the beginning of your project, determine ownership and share of copyright. Far better to have a written agreement at the beginning  of the project, than damaging financial and reputational bitterness at the end – the music world, in particular, is littered with litigation due to arguments over copyright – arguments that invariably end in tears – don’t let it happen to you. 


© HERE is the copyright consultancy of Alan Rae. Alan has worked in the wacky world of copyright for over 30 years and is determined that all creators achieve a level of copyright literacy that equips them for a highly competitive world where infringement is rife, and livelihoods can be lost with the click of a mouse as their work is copied and distributed in the online world. Contact Alan at alan@copyrightscotland.co.uk.

Although holding an academic qualification in UK, EU and US copyright, Alan is not a solicitor, so please don’t take any of the information in this article as legal advice.  If you do feel that you need to consult with a solicitor on any Intellectual Property issues, it’s always worth a conversation with Alan – he can prime you for a shorter, less expensive visit to the solicitor!  And his rates are way below those of the professionals!   

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