Monday, May 15, 2006

Know your (copy) rights

"Ask Jim" is a syndicated newspaper column on computers and the internet that I read just about every week. Jim Coates has given me a lot of good tips, but something in this week's column bothered me enough to fire off the following e-mail to that gentleman:

As a published novelist and a blogger who has discussed copyright and plagiarism many times in online forums and on my own blog, I was dismayed to read the following paragraph of your reply to the individual who asked for information on copyright law:

"A lot of writers and photo pros put copies of their masterpieces in an envelope, seal it and then mail it to themselves and keep it unopened in hopes that this will be dated evidence that they created it, should a dispute arise."

In fact, professional writers and photographers do nothing of the kind. Unfortunately, this so-called "poor man's copyright" is a myth that just won't die, even though common sense should tell us that it's entirely possible to mail an empty, unsealed envelope and fill it later.

I have enjoyed your column for some time and was surprised to see you make this kind of error. I hope you'll set your readers straight.

Best regards,

Friends, this is so simple. If you have any questions about protecting your own work or using someone else's, just head straight to the U.S. Copyright Office's website. It's well-designed and easy to navigate, and you need not be an attorney to understand the basics of copyright law as presented there.

I can hardly believe the amount of erroneous information on copyright that's being disseminated on the internet and through writers' groups. Please don't feed that monster! Before repeating something you read on a writers' e-mail list or hear at a workshop or read in a newspaper, please take a few minutes to find out if it's true. Very often, it isn't.


Jonathan Bailey said...

First off, I have to say thank you for taking up this issue and righting the wrong. The sheer amount of poor, and even damaging, copyright information out there is disturbing.

I'm glad to see that you're taking a stand against it.

As someone who's dealt with hundreds of plagiarism cases, the Copyright Web site is one of my greatest tools as well. I also registered most of my work with them about a year ago.

I recommend anyone else who is serious about copyright to do the same periodically.

Perhaps, if enough of us offer the truth about copyright, we can eventually drown out the bad advice...

Brenda Coulter said...

Jonathan, I'm recommending that my readers visit your excellent blog, PlagiarismToday, which has been spotlighted recently by blogging heavyweights Darren Rowse ( and As someone whose blog posts are being stolen daily by a Russian site that thumbs its nose at its "donors" who complain, I can only urge you to keep up the good work of educating people about online plagiarism. Many thanks for visiting my blog. I'm honored.

And you can quote me on that. ;-)

6:57 PM, May 15, 2006

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Brenda, that is an excellent point that you make. I think the problem with this "poor man's copyright" is that it is somewhat acceptable in the UK.

Since the Blogosphere knows no bounds, Uk people could be talking it and US people are picking it up.

Here's a short article from Snopes discussing that... Copyright Mailing Disclaimer

Brenda Coulter said...

Bonnie, thanks for that link. Good stuff over there at Snopes.

But as for mailing your own copyrighted works to yourself, I remain skeptical that such evidence would be accepted in the UK or anywhere else. Simply put, how could you prove the materials in question were in the envelope when you mailed it? Shoot, if I thought I could get away with it, I might mail an envelope to myself today. Then when the next Harry Potter book comes out, I'd copy the first chapter and stick it in my postmarked envelope and seal that puppy and then get Geraldo Rivera to open it on live TV at prime time and make me rich, rich, rich!

Yeah, maybe I should cut back on the caffeine....

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yeah...but since you already told the whole blogoshere that you were going to do the first chapter...I don't think it will work.

Try the second...LOL!