Fair use for poets, demystified

Pat from American University's Center for Social Media sez, "We're excited to announce the launch of a Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry, cofacilitated by WCL-AU's Peter Jaszi, UCB's Jennifer Urban, Kate Coles from the Poetry Foundation, and Center for Social Media's Pat Aufderheide. The hashtag is #fairusepoetry"
Why would poets need fair use? Consider:

Mark Taylor has been asked by a major press to assemble a collection of the essays on poetry he has written over the years and add several more to make a book. He can't decide what selections he needs to license, and which ones he can use under fair use. If he licensed everything, he would be paying thousands of dollars more than he would ever see in royalties.

Julie Blake decides to do erasures--taking words out of existing poems, and so making new ones--of the poems from her own collection of sonnets. She thinks the new work is both an evolution from and a critique of her earlier work. When she places the collection with a new publisher, the publisher of the sonnets claims copyright infringement. Does she have a fair use claim to do what she did?

Kurt Flanagan is a collage poet, making poems out of bits and pieces of existing work. His new work addresses war in the first decade of the 21st century. His book-length collage poem draws on news sources and also on literary sources, including but not limited to poetry. One of the poets whose work has been used in fragments sues for copyright infringement. Does he have a fair use argument?

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry (Thanks, Pat!)


  1. *crickets*

    I’m surprised by the lack of comments here, in comparison to posts about fair use in the visual arts.

    1. Maybe since the Poets who read this can’t physically light the document on fire, they are choosing to ignore it?

    2. Lot of action on the gun thread. There’s a whole big box of nuts rattling around over there.

      A friend sent me a letter (remember those?) that included a short stanza from an unaccredited poem. When I replied I asked who wrote it…

      He responded, “You did, ten years ago.”

      Might as well steal from poets; we can’t remember the shit we write anyway.

  2. I dabble in poetry now and then, and I’m going to say… calling someone who grabs other people’s lines and mixing them a “collage poet” is akin to calling someone who does song mash-ups a musician.

  3. “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” –T.S. Eliot

  4. Notions and understandings of authorship are changing; there will always be artists who explore the edges.

    For example, there are people who create original jokes, and then there are people who retell existing jokes. There is a time and place for each approach, and everyone, from the truly creative to the hack, is allowed to participate.

    Authorship is not taken quite so seriously in joke-telling. Or in music. A musician can wow a crowd, or a few friends, or just herself, with a well-rendered cover. Sometimes the crowd knows when the joker or the musician is covering. But sometimes not. It’s all good (not necessarily in the business sense, but in the moral sense).

    But, one might say in disagreement, jokers and musicians are performers, while poets are WRITERS! There is a big difference.

    Meh. My position is that writing can be a performance as much as anything else. The writer can be conceived of as a performance artist, playing the role of the writer; the words she writes might be a script written by somebody else, or an outline, or she might be improvising. The actor can get to an emotional space and deliver a certain kind of performance when she doesn’t have to be improvising all her lines, so why not the poet? The actor can use the spirit of the playwright as a scaffold, so why not the poet?

    Or perhaps the “grabby” poet writes the way he writes as a way of exploring the experience of reading. Summary, quotation, reaction, interpretation rolled into a poem, an exploration of a myth rolled into another myth. It sounds like a rather pleasant thing to do.

    Or perhaps the poet has noticed that mimicry, both conscious and unconscious, is inherently human, and wants to recreate that phenomenon in his art practice.

    Or perhaps the poet has noticed that language is social, and wants to explore language in a social way.

    Personally, I think “poetry” would be more alive and free today if we loosened our ideas of what is acceptable practice and purpose.

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