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Does Sending Intellectual Property in an Email Constitute an Effective Copyright?

If you are a musician, artist, or other creative, you have probably heard any number of suspicious rumors about copyrighting your material. One of the most prevalent is the trope about “emailing your work to yourself” in lieu of filing an official copyright. While some creators will maintain that establishing a paper trail is all you need to protect yourself from infringement issues, the truth is more nuanced. To understand this completely, we first need to discuss the benefits of an official copyright, the idea of an “effective” copyright, and examine why the email advice exists in the first place. The IP attorneys at Patterson Thuente offer some insights.

The Origin of the Myth

At the core of the email myth is a distorted kernel of truth: that to obtain an effective copyright for a creative work, you must reduce or process the work into a physical form. This makes sense: simply having an idea for a song, painting, patent, or other work does not entitle you to ownership of it. Such a claim would be impossible to prove in a court of law. Thus, the work needs to be transmitted into a physical version, such as a lyric sheet, photograph, painting, mp3 file, etc. When such a work is brought from the idea realm into the physical world, it becomes traceable and verifiable, especially in the case of digital files that carry time stamps.

Given this, it is also understandable that a common narrative developed regarding the email method. When you send a file via email, as long as the company who owns the email server and cloud does not go out of business, it will hypothetically exist forever with a clear time stamp. A piece of paper can be lost and a date written on it can be forged, but an email containing a work is much harder to fabricate.

Does the Email Method Work?

The answer to this key question is partially yes, but mostly no. In one sense, placing your work into a physical form (file attachment or email text) is a necessary step to obtaining a copyright. Additionally, this piece of evidence could help prove that you did not knowingly infringe on someone else’s copyrighted material if the email was sent before their copyright was established.

However, that’s where the validity of the email method ends. In terms of protecting the work within the email, the message itself does not classify an enforceable copyright. What does that mean? In short, if someone steals your intellectual property, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to file suit against them for infringement based solely upon the fact that you emailed the material to yourself.

A formal registration of the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office is the only way to establish an enforceable copyright. Emails can be altered or photoshopped, and most importantly, if the Copyright Office bears no record of your material, it effectively does not exist, and therefore cannot be enforceably infringed upon.

A Better Solution

With a few clicks and a small fee, you can avoid the vast majority of copyright-related issues by simply filing your works with the U.S. Copyright Office. This can be done entirely online via eCO, which allows you to upload a variety of digital file types. If a copyright infringement lawsuit ever develops surrounding one of your works, this official filing will serve as the clearest and most important piece of evidence. One of the chief benefits of owning a copyright is that it establishes a firm date at which the intellectual property becomes “owned” by you. This point is often the most commonly debated detail in an infringement suit, and it is easily clarified with an eCO filing.

At Patterson Thuente, we help scores of artists and creators copyright their work every year. We also offer advisory services that pertain to branding, trademarks, patents, strategy, and infringement inquiries. Having an intellectual property ally can help you avoid major pitfalls as well as stop them from arising altogether.

Learn More about IP

Connect with experienced IP lawyers today to learn about protecting your intellectual property, as well as gain industry insights and professional recommendations. The attorneys at Patterson Thuente IP are here to help you navigate the sphere of intellectual property law to make sure your rights are protected and any accusations are addressed properly and efficiently. Our team of experienced attorneys stands ready to help you with your unique situation. Contact us today:


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