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What is a poor man's patent?

In the old days, a “poor man's patent” involves mailing a description of your invention to yourself in order to authenticate a date of invention for you by the Post Office. With the first to file system, this does not work. You can publish your invention to the public for free, but you must file a patent application (provisional or utility) before the one year anniversary of the publication to claim rights to your invention in the US (of course outside the US you have lost all rights if you publish before filing patent application).