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how can I prove authorship of my work?
July 13, 2008 1:45 AM   Subscribe

How can I Prove that I am the author of something, especially before publishing it on the web?

I know that my work can be covered by copyright, but how do I prove that copyright is mine? some advise sending a copy to yourself by special delivery and leaving the envelope sealed. This doesn't seem like proof to me.
posted by daveydave to Law & Government (25 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
If the work is textual, use steganographic tools to embed in a picture or pictures and then upload to flickr.com which will timestamp them for you.

Note : Proving original authorship by law is not at all straightforward. This method just establishes possession at a particular time, which may, given particular circumstances, be sufficient to establish authorship.
posted by zaebiz at 2:08 AM on July 13, 2008


Further to my answer above, you might think you are the original author of a work, only to find that a court determines that you subconsciously copied from somebody else without even being aware of it. This is sometimes known as cryptomnesia. This is what happened to George Harrison for example.

Ok you might say this is quite unlikely to happen in your case. You might be right. I am just pointing out that there are degrees of establishing "proof". You need to to be comfortable with a particular level of certainty of provability of your authorship.
posted by zaebiz at 2:18 AM on July 13, 2008


email it to a gmail/yahoo account

print it and mail it to yourself via registered mail
posted by mattoxic at 2:54 AM on July 13, 2008


I don't see how a flickr timestamp could be considered more reliable/proof than the post mark on a special delivery envelope (I'm not saying theres anything wrong with your proposed method but its essentially the same as posting it to yourself to get a dated post mark so presumably not 'proof' for the same reasons as posting it to yourself)

Essentially you can't prove that you're the original author of something. You can only take steps to prevent anyone else claiming that they are. Posting it to yourself gives you a definitive date that says for someone else to disprove your claim to this work, they would have to have a copy that the could prove predates yours. But none of this proves that you wrote it.
posted by missmagenta at 2:58 AM on July 13, 2008


missmagenta: "I don't see how a flickr timestamp could be considered more reliable/proof than the post mark on a special delivery envelope"

It's not too difficult to loosely seal an envelope, post it, unseal it, replace the contents and reseal it securely later. Publishing on flickr also provides many more witnesses that could be called upon if challenged. The poster could post the flickr link in this thread for example and we would all be witnesses.
posted by zaebiz at 3:07 AM on July 13, 2008


If you're in the US, the proper way is to register your work with the Copyright Office. Tricks such as mailing it to yourself are legally meaningless.
posted by reynaert at 3:11 AM on July 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


You could sue a PGP based trusted time stamping service such as Stamper which is a kind of electronic equvalent of the sealed envelop method.
posted by tallus at 3:11 AM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's not too difficult to loosely seal an envelope, post it, unseal it, replace the contents and reseal it securely later.

If you take it to the P.O. window, they will date stamp the sealed edge for you. You could probably make the sealed side the address side, in fact, and simply paste the time-stamped certified sticker right over the sealed edge.

Not that this proves authorship, and I have no idea of the legalities. But creating a reasonably tamper-proof mailing package is not very challenging.
posted by nax at 3:31 AM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


Notary public.
posted by three blind mice at 4:15 AM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I can't vouch for the reliability of this service but they claim they will timestamp your work and provide you with an affidavit if you need to go to court. Not free though.
posted by zaebiz at 5:56 AM on July 13, 2008


This is very helpful for US copyright - http://www.fplc.edu/tfield/copynet.htm
posted by TheRaven at 6:06 AM on July 13, 2008


I don't know about legally (don't even know where you are). But keeping all of your notes and drafts, preferably in hard copy, couldn't hurt if it ever came down to an argument with someone over authorship.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:12 AM on July 13, 2008


Tricks such as mailing it to yourself are legally meaningless.

Repeated for emphasis. Copyright office is the way to go, as is maintaining meticulous records of drafts, notes, etc. With dates.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:01 AM on July 13, 2008


...but how do I prove that copyright is mine?

(I am not a lawyer but...)

Step 1. Register your work with the US Copyright Office. It's very easy and you can now do it on-line at www.copyright.gov.

Step 2. A few months later, you will receive a certificate in the mail from the Library of Congress with your name/address, the title of the work, date of registration, etc.

The certificate is proof that the copyright is yours. Note that proof of copyright is not the same as proof of authorship. You could legally own the copyright to a work you did not create if, for example, you hired someone to write it for you and transfer the copyright to you.
posted by ironicsans at 7:11 AM on July 13, 2008


How much proof are you looking for?

If you're looking for an absolute, philosophical level of "proof", you might as well stop looking. You're never going to find any piece of information which proves, beyond any doubt, that you were the original author of a piece of content.

If you're looking for more time-based proof, there are any number of ways you can combine various forms of media (video, photographs, web, etc.) and free or un-free services (like flickr, notary public, the post office, fedex, etc). The questions you need to make sure you address are: a) how easy is this to fake, and b) does this REALLY prove what I think it proves. For example, taking a video of yourself with the document and a certain day's newspaper is difficult to fake, but doesn't prove anything, except that the document existed AFTER a particular date. Mailing it to yourself proves what you want it to, but is somewhat easy to fake -- fedex or UPS express mail packaging might be harder.

If you're looking for legal protection, the best thing you can do is register a copyright. That said, I could go rip someone's blog post off the web and copyright it... but the registration supplies a presumption that you own the copyright.

Remember that none of these things actually prove authorship: how does anyone know that you didn't use one of these methods on a document AFTER someone else wrote it? You're trying to prove that certain brain activity took place, which is basically impossible.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:21 AM on July 13, 2008


I could rip someone's blog post off the web and copyright it

I could "register it with the copyright office", not "copyright it"
posted by toomuchpete at 8:23 AM on July 13, 2008


proving ownership of the information at a given time would be good enough for me. I also felt that the envelope method would be too easy to fake.
BTW: I am in the UK where there is no official copyright registering service.
posted by daveydave at 8:45 AM on July 13, 2008


The Poor Man's Copyright...which both summarizes and gives more detail on many of the above comments.
posted by storybored at 8:51 AM on July 13, 2008


This isn't a huge issue to worry about. In the copyright context, time-order of creation is way down on the list of things people argue about. Most important is who has the right to use a work whose creation and creator are undisputed (sale, licensing and work-for-hire issues), what degree of use and adaptation is fair use and is not, and what is copyrightable in the first place (certain common themes and devices are not copyrightable).
posted by MattD at 9:00 AM on July 13, 2008


A US registration should be adequate proof of authorship in a UK court because of the Berne Convention. I second registering it online with the US Copyright Office.

There are also several UK-based commercial copyright registration companies that will store your work, keep track of when it was submitted, etc.
posted by jedicus at 9:02 AM on July 13, 2008


Others have answered the question as asked well, so I'll add the following: Unless you are in very specific and unusual circumstances there is little reason to be concerned about this. Most of the time people who are very concerned that others are going to "steal their work" are crackpotty script or novel writers who have no chance of getting published anyway.

Is there a specific reason you're afraid there will be some dispute about your work? That would be helpful in formulating a more tailored answer.
posted by Justinian at 10:14 AM on July 13, 2008


nthing the register it at the US Copyright Office. Mailing it to yourself is legally worthless.
posted by Brian Puccio at 10:26 AM on July 13, 2008


Also, I'd like to raise the point that there's a big difference between "copyrighting" work, and "getting credit for it". I'm really not trying to be cynical, but they're not the same thing at all, and if you've got something you think is a great idea, and you're trying to capitalize on it, then the latter is actually much more important than the former.

Copyright protection is a flimsy protection in the worst-case scenario ("Oh, crap, someone's getting acclaim/money for claiming the same idea"), and doesn't do _anything_ to ensure the best-case scenario ("People are falling over themselves to acknowledge me as the originator of this idea").

If you're really concerned about getting credit for your ideas, then you need to have a solid promotional plan--things like a blog that's regularly updated with content that's relevant to your work (without giving away too much), outreach to high-profile bloggers who will be willing to interview you, or at least promote your work, that kind of thing.

If you get that kind of approach in place, it won't matter if someone else tries to piggy-back onto your work--they'll clearly be followers. Unless your idea really depends on the legal foundation of intellectual property ownership (in which case you should know a _lot_ more about the issues than what you can learn here), you should focus on the prmotional aspects more. Getting copyright ownership's not a bad idea, but it should be something you do along the way, not the foundation of your plan.
posted by LairBob at 12:04 PM on July 13, 2008


BTW: I am in the UK where there is no official copyright registering service.

However, the Patent Office (AKA the IP Office) do have a nice website. Among other things, it mentions mailing things to yourself by special delivery - but consult a lawyer before expecting this to hold up in court.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:00 PM on July 13, 2008


three blind mice: "Notary public."

I don't recommend this. If a case is brought in the UK, the poster should be fine, but if dealing with a case in the US, authorised copy certification by a public notary is a state-by-state lottery - New York being a notable exception.
posted by zaebiz at 2:59 PM on July 13, 2008


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