Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Found Poetry, Fair Use and Free Text

by Susan

Last time, I talked about a form of found poetry, a way to lift words from existing texts. This time, let's talk copyright.

The United States Copyright Office has a great circular on copyright basics. In general, copyright law protects our right to control, reproduce and benefit from the work we produce. Others cannot reproduce it without our permission -- attribution is not sufficient. After (considerable) time, copyright expires, the work enters the public domain, and it may be used freely.

There are some fair uses of copyrighted work. But if you're looking for excerpts to use, beware if someone tells you that up to "x number of words" or "such and such a percentage" is allowable. There are no hard and fast rules. Instead, it hinges on factors such as whether it's for commercial or educational use, how much is used and whether it's likely to affect the market for the original work.

It may not be of such concern for erasures, if you are only taking small snippets, but what about centos, where you are using entire lines?
    Poet Katharine Coles, presenter at the 2013 WyoPoets Conference, writes found poetry, including centos, and sometimes uses text still under copyright. There's a good argument to be made, she explained, that found poetry is transformative and therefore allowable under fair use. However, she also said she has a friend who's a lawyer who is willing to defend her if push comes to shove.

    The good news is, if you're like me and hesitant to use copyrighted text, there are plenty of materials -- including most of the classics -- in the public domain. The best source is Project Gutenberg, with more than 42,000 ebooks. The Wyoming Newspaper Project has digitized every newspaper in the state they could locate prior to 1922, none under copyright. You can find many more newspapers on the Library of Congress's Chronicling America. The Hathi Trust also has a number of older public domain texts. 

    And one surprising source -- government documents! It may sound dull and boring, but everything produced by the federal government is in the public domain and, believe it or not, you can find interesting things in the older materials. But fun with feddocs is a topic for another day!

    Have you ever used any of these sources for text, for research or just for a good book to read?


    Lynn said...

    Not yet, but since my father and grandfather were both newspaper editors, I plan on looking at the Wyoming Newspaper Project. Wonder if Colorado has that as well?

    Thanks for educating us on this stuff - I'm so clueless. Don't have an attorney as a friend, but having one who is a librarian is GOLD!

    Anonymous said...

    I've often used song lyrics in my poetry, and those definitely aren't in the public domaine. I recently rewrote such a poem, paraphrasing the lyrics instead of quoting them directly. This poem was published in Magnets and Ladders, an online publication of work by disabled authors which can be read at My poem can also be read on my blog at

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