In the business of intellectual property (IP) protection, the first rule is to establish the date on which a new idea was conceived. Conventional wisdom for establishing this date is to write up a short IP disclosure, seal it in an envelope, and mail it to yourself. The US Postal Service postmark legally establishes the date on which the IP within the envelope was created.
I may have just invented a new widget. However, I need to dig through the prior art to determine if my idea is new. So, following the procedure above, I wrote up a short disclosure and mailed it to myself. Since I arrived at the post office after hours, I printed out a stamp for myself on the new Automated Postal Station, and I put the envelope in the outgoing mail slot.
The next day, the envelope appeared in my post office box WITHOUT A POSTMARK and without the stamp being cancelled.
I assumed that some lazy post office neophyte noted that the outgoing mail slot and my PO box are right across the aisle from each other. So, the envelope accidentally circumvented the proper process. To assure this mistake was not repeated, I drove the envelope well out of my zip code, and I slipped it into a street-corner postal drop box to assure it would be correctly processed.
Two days later, my envelope again appeared in my post office box WITHOUT A POSTMARK.
The post office was open. So, I took the envelope up to the counter to inquire why I had twice mailed the envelope and never received a postmark. The counter worker explained that stamps purchased from the Automated Postal Station contained the date postage was purchased. According to her, that date establishes the day an envelope is mailed. So, no postmark is needed.
I tried to explain the flaw in this logic. I can buy a stamp from the Automated Postal Station with today’s date on it. I can then hold onto that stamp for any duration of time I wish. At some point in the future, I can then use that stamp to mail an envelope. By the postal worker’s logic, the date on the stamp (not the day the envelope was processed) establishes the age of the envelope’s contents.
Hence, I can buy a stamp today. I can then wait for some trillion-dollar patent to be filed by someone else at some point in the future. I can then write up an IP disclosure for the patented idea, put it in an envelope, and mail it to myself using one of the stamps I’ve been hording. If the post office uses the date on the stamp to establish when the package was mailed, I can mail myself “proof” that I conceived of someone else’s IP “before” their patent was filed. Obviously, something is wrong with the process the post office is using; perhaps the counter worker was misinformed. Nonetheless, I mailed an envelope containing time-sensitive IP twice from two different locations, and it arrived back in my hands both times without a postmark. It can’t be a fluke.
Instead of arguing with the counter worker, my solution was to donate another 41 cents to the post office, buy another stamp, and have the counter worker postmark my envelope right before my eyes. Four days and 123 cents later, I finally got my postmark. Let’s hope someone else didn’t invent my widget in those four days.
The bottom line is don’t trust your IP to the post office. Make sure you get that postmark, or your IP could be jeopardized.