Copyrighting poems

Fame is a bee
It has a song–
It has a sting–
Ah, too, it has a wing

skkott Emily Dickinson

Kevin S, Editor, New Poets Press writes:

First of all, the minute you create something in writing, it is automatically copyrighted. Yes, “automatically”. Everything that comes after that deals with “proving” the date you created it, but nothing you do will make it any more “copyrighted” than it was the minute you created it.

That’s why people say “email it to yourself”, because doing this will put a date-stamp on the poem so that if someone else were to use it at a later date, you could show that your copy pre-dates theirs. This is the easiest and least costly way to do it. You do NOT need a lawyer and the laws do NOT vary state to state…they’re Federal laws that protect your property…it’s why it’s called a copy “right”, not “copy write.” […]

The likelihood that someone will steal your poems and call them their own is slim, and if they do, you can’t do much about it anyway….

If you email the poems to yourself, print them out and put them in a binder so you’ll have a hard copy. Next, “save” your email to either your hard drive of your internet providers “saved mail” file. Really, that’s all you really need to do.

So, if it’s so easy, why do publishers make such a big deal about copyrights? Easy: money. It all boils down to money. When someone provides a publisher with a poem, the publisher is about to make an investment in that poem and wants to ensure it isn’t challanged by someone else who claims it was “their” poem. So a publisher will take greater steps to prevent law suits down the road. The reality is that the odds of someone stealing your poem and making any money off of it is very, very remote. For starters, there is not a lot of money in poetry, unless the poet is someone who’s already famous (Madonna, Paris Hilton, etc.). In those cases, the poem could be junk, but because it was made by “them”, it has the value of fame added, and thus is more likely to be “stolen”.

Copyrighting your poems (or writing a © on everything you write) is amateurish, and editors and other poets know this. Poetry is simply not lucrative enough to take time to steal. What would someone do with your poems? Sell them to inferior poets to pass off as their own? Not likely. When you publish a book your publisher will copyright the poems for you. Before that don’t worry about it.

Don’t spend a bunch of money protecting something that although valuable to you, probably has very little marketing value.

If you are really paranoid, you can do the “poor man’s” copyright–mail your poems to yourself and don’t open the envelope when it arrives–the postmark will serve as a sort of copyright, but this mayn’t hold up in the court. Or you can just email it to yourself.

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5 thoughts on “Copyrighting poems

  1. heath says:

    With all due respect to everyone else’s opinion, I believe that literature is trending towards allowing more value in poetry.

    Interest in poetry has been growing for about ten years, with a steeper rate of increase over the past four years or so because the web enables most people to get an audience, even a tiny one, for their poems. As with every other product or object or art, poetry’s value increases in direct proportion to the growth of the size and wealth of its audience.

    The use of the word copyright or the © symbol on web-published poetry or other art is useful in protecting the poet or other artist from the amateur thief. I have used it several times to strengthen my case when people have snagged my writing or art without my permission. In every case but one, I have gotten the snagger to stop using my original material, and with very little effort. This may seem amateurish to some, but it’s effective, legal and very inexpensive. Matlab free.

    When people who’ve been in a business or art for a while give out pronouncements that have a quality of demeaning some of the practices of their reading audience as being amateurish, those people are feeling threatened by the amateurs, and are “pulling rank” by touting their longer-standing presence in the field as more professional — i.e., they’re trying to cow their future competitors. It’s an expression of cultural and economic politics.

    No one can deny that there is thievery, both intentional and not, of writing, music and visual art, on a global scale. It is rampant, it is pervasive.

    Using the word copyright, or a © symbol is an effective deterrent and defense in dealing with this kind of stuff. To not have some notice or warning that you don’t want your work stolen is tantamount to saying it’s OK for people to take it without your permission.

    At first, an author or artist may think that that is OK. One might initially have an open source kind of attitude about sharing one’s creations.

    But: I can almost guarantee that the first time someone steals something that matters to an author or artist, that author or artist will suffer through a serious attitude-changing moment about this issue.

    It happened to me about four years ago. I’m a generous person. If it happened to me, I think it would happen to anyone.

    I have now gotten to the point where I get annoyed when people make gratuitous or insensitive comments on the poems that matter most to me. As a result, I’ve made most of my blogs private, and I’ve moved many posts on the remaining open blogs back to drafts status. I’m compiling what will be a printed book of poems for Emmanuel-ji. He’ll get a copy, and my son will get one. And then the poems will be gone from the web. It doesn’t matter that my work isn’t professional or even very good. It matters that it has a particular meaning to me, that I wrote it, that it is unique and original to me.

    And that is what makes it copyright and protection worthy.

    You see, copyright law doesn’t judge quality, breadth of distribution, or value. Copyright is available to all creators of original works, at least those being creating and/or publishing in the USA, for free. Copyright is an example of how democracy works. It is not an elite feature of our society, culture or law. It is a populist feature.

    As soon as you write something or create something original, yes, there is an implicit copyright.

    But when thieves come to your door — if they abscond with something of value to you — you need a defense to strengthen and support your implicit control. Because by nature, thieves are challengers of implicit control. It’s their delight to ignore it, to walk around it and to tear it down.

    There are several layers of defenses to use. Those that are mentioned in the post are more than valid.

    But the first and easiest available to you is to tell the world that you own the copyright to the material right on the web or printed page or whatever, where it is visible to the public that will consume your writing, music or art.

    If copyright statements were an amateurish and ineffective practice, you would not see them on books or magazines, in film credit sequences, on music CD’s and DVD’s, web sites, and so on.

    Just a tip: any time I read a piece with lots of adverbs, i.e., where the writer is telling me how I should feel about something, I get suspicious. For example, whenever anyone tells me something is “simply” this or that, I know that writer thinks his or her readers are simpletons. Overuse of adverbs is an expression of poor writing and of arrogance. Caveat reader and psyche, in any case.

    Before your work is sold, don’t worry about copyrights? Hah! If a writer, musician or artist hits big, even their early stuff will get heavy commercial value. Better to play it safe than end up like some of the early R&B artists who didn’t protect their work and ended up in virtual poorhouses, while scores of agents and lawyers earned royalties on music and lyrics they had no part in creating.

    How many adverbs in this comment? None.

    love, h

  2. heath says:

    By the way, in my personal opinion, those who chase fame are wasting time. Those who chase money, however, are on to something. I believe in seeing the value in all efforts, and protecting that value, even if it comes to nothing in the end. Off my speech-box now. Bye, & love to all. I’m doing the NaNoWriMo thing, and I’m using Tiger’s post as an excuse not to grapple with the second half of chapter 2 of my draft. Bye & love again, h

  3. ed says:

    Birthright seems to be more important to me than it’s expression, copyright. Why would anyone want to steal what is given freely. Will we ever get it if we forever fence it around for ourselves and for others? Of course, it’s never that hard and fast.
    Exponential awaits ex-potential explanation, writes the boss-eyed gardener 🙂

  4. derek says:

    It’s interesting how this copywrite thing effects us diferently, depending on what our art represents to us individually.

    I make my living from visual art. I understand Heath’s point because I work very diligently to create my work. I also limit how much visual art I put online, especially my glass work. I have seen some obvious stealing of designs in this area. A clients ‘one of a kind’ glass design can be easily copied and once it’s on the internet it can be copied anywhere in the world. I am looking at doing more video documentation like the one I already have on youtube. There are no stills of that piece and you never see the whole piece at one time. The piece can be seen but it would be very difficult to reproduce from the video. This of coarse will not work for written art but for visual art it seems to work well.

    My poetry on the other hand is completely different. That just comes out of me, releases a tension from my heart and then I’m done with it. What ever happens after that is up to the universe. If someone lifts a few lines, I’m flattered. If they make a little money off it, that means they are more industrious than me when it comes to poetry. I had to ask myself what my poetry meant to me after I realized that IB technically owned the words I wrote there. That was an awakening to me. Someting I created was owned by someone else and I have no rights to it. What if some of my concepts end up in one of Deepak’s books and it makes him richer or more respected? What if one of my crazy poems end up in one of his books? I decided I am freely given what I write without much effort so I give it back freely. Karma pays my rent anyway.

    I was told once to do whatever I do with my own distinct style. That way no one can copy you without it being obvious.

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