Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Poetry and Copyright

Wendy Cope’s article in last week’s Guardian on breach of copyright raises complex issues.

Cope complains that her poems can be found “all over the Internet” and I’ve no doubt that’s true. She depends on income from writing. It’s her job. She feels that the sheer amount of her material online must adversely affect her book sales.

This week in the Guardian blog, Oliver Burkeman makes the opposite case. He feels that while wholesale copying from poetry collections is clearly wrong, the availability of a few poems online is most likely to increase sales.

Part of me agrees with him. I’ve bought several collections after finding poems online. The amount of poetry online simply hasn’t stopped me from buying poetry books. My own bookcases are ample evidence of this. Also, there is a lot of really bad poetry on the internet – millions of poems that wouldn’t stand a chance of being published, but which find a home on showcase sites and blogs. It’s good that quality poems exist on the internet – otherwise people might get the impression that most poetry was of the unpublishable variety. In addition, the Internet has opened up the work of poets to a global readership. Because I've found work online, I've ordered and read collections from foreign poets (especially Americans) who are virtually unknown and often unpublished in the UK. I wouldn't have had the opportunity to do so without such fortuitous breach of copyright.

On the other hand, I can see why Wendy Cope isn’t happy. The idea that poets should be grateful when people reproduce their work without permission (even if they credit the poet) is incredibly patronising. Poets are supposed to nod their heads in thanks for any crumb of attention people throw to them, even if that means allowing people to reproduce their work without payment – even if writing is part of the poet’s livelihood. The worst offenders in that regard are sites like Poemhunter which reproduce large amounts of poets’ work (even creating ebooks of it!) without permission and who make money from revenue generated by site-ads.

But uploading occasional poems without financial gain seems to me to belong to a different category. On balance I think it brings attention to a poet’s work. It leaves people wanting more. Of course, if you only want a single poem by a poet and you find it on a website, it saves you from buying the book and Wendy Cope’s argument is vindicated. But I suspect that’s more than balanced out by people finding a poem by someone, liking it, and then buying the collection it comes from. Of course, it’s impossible to prove this either way.

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As a postscript; I typed ‘Wendy Cope poems’ into a search engine just to see what would come up and despite Ms Cope’s efforts, there are quite a number of sites still showcasing her poems. The most thought-provoking was this one, in which a poster asked where she might find Wendy Cope’s A Christmas Poem. She felt it would be a good quote for her Facebook page. The question has been “resolved”.

The “resolution” was another poster typing the poem, in full, into a comment box, without any thought that doing so was breach of copyright (just as using it on a Facebook site would be). Other posters had recommended trying various websites. But no one suggested purchasing Cope’s collection Serious Concerns, where the poem actually appears. Makes you think!

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Another postscript: the attitude of melodic pop band, the Trash Can Sinatras, shows how some artists have embraced both the Internet and breach of copyright.

10 comments:

Jim Sheard said...

There's an excellent song by Gillian Welch on this topic - 'Everything is Free Now'. I'd quote the lyrics, but...er...you can find them on the Net. And the song is worth downloading, too. From a legal site. And so on.

Jim Sheard said...

Also: it strikes me that a copyright-breaking duplication of an already-published poem has the smallest impact on a poet's 'living'.

You could argue that for almost every published poet, once the text has been placed in some way (in a magazine, competition, collection etc.), its earning power ceases to have much to do with the legal duplication and sales of the work and more to do with the peripheral bits and pieces of income which derive from reputation. This may not be true in Cope's case (after all, she writes that she makes an income from royalties), but you can't help thinking that she is complaining about imaginary lost sales, rather than actual ones: the feeling that all [x]'s friends might buy the book, rather than reading a poem which has been sent to them, seems a little over-optimistic, for example.

And I don't think that being 'patronised' by crumbs of attention is such a bad thing - it's part of a wider system which enables poetry to survive - most poets who make a small living do so largely via patronage, sincecures, charity, the generosity of other poets and enthusiasts and so on.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have never read a poem by Wendy Cope. Now, knowing her views on copyright, I have no intention of searching for one. As I rarely visit bookshops these days, preferring to buy online, I can't see me ever chancing across her poems and, since I'm not going to buy a book of poems based purely on a review, I guess I'll never get to read one of her poems. Her loss. There are plenty of people out there who realise that the Web is free advertising. The sites that reproduce her work are doing her the favour. They're not making any money out of her so where is the harm?

I discovered the poet William Carlos Williams thanks to an article by fellow Scot Tom Leonard in the long defunct Poetry Information. I have no idea if he paid to reproduce the poem and I don't much care at this stage. I immediately went out and bought a copy of Williams' Collected Poems and I have been happy to promote both poets ever since. I imagine I would have blundered into Williams somewhere along the line or maybe not. But how many poets are there out there who I've never heard of nor, if they're going to be as snotty-nosed as Wendy Cope, will I ever?

Rachel Fox said...

I am a huge fan of Wendy Cope but I'm afraid I can't be with her on this one. What is she going to do...send round the poetry police I've been hearing about to the home of every offender?
The internet has its advantages and disadvantages...she probably gets many new fans and sales as a result of people putting her poems up for free and the people who print off poems for nothing were most likely not going to buy the book right then anyway..they might have photocopied from the library but they wouldn't have bought it. When I've been skint and liked a poem I have done just that and then when I've had money available I've bought the book. If you like something enough (and are a person who buys books...some people are just not) then you will buy it eventually.
I put all my poems on my website which infuriates editors and confuses some others but they are mine and I will do with them what I damn well like. Will I one day regret it...? Well, it will be just one thing in a long old list if I do!
Perhaps she was just hoping for work on that 'grumpy old...' show next year.

Rob said...

Thanks for the interesting comments. I tend to lean towards the idea that publication on the web is more a help than a hindrance.

I have a problem with sites like Poemhunter, which publish large amounts of poetry without permission. I also noted a site in which Wendy Cope's lawyers had got the site owners to delete her poems. I could see why - they had printed about 15 poems or so, all from the one collection. Surely that kind of thing is way excessive? It is of course hard to know where to draw the line.

Colin Will said...

Sally Evans and I had a discussion on this last weekend when I was in Callander. It's a tricky issue with several dimensions. As a former adviser on copyright law I would argue strongly that we need protection for authors from unscrupulous and unauthorised copying for profit. On the other hand, the current law sets too long a period - 70 years after the author's death is too long. By then, the motives for re-issuing an author's work may have been forgotten. The old Copyright Act had a provision for 'fair dealing', which allowed for a reasonable proportion of a work to be copied, but it didn't say what was reasonable. And that was before the internet was invented. Even the more recent Act didn't anticipate today's situation. Speaking personally, I buy a lot of poetry in printed form, but I also like to seek out examples of poems by authors I don't know. Reading them on websites is one way of promoting the work, and at the end of the day, policing is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. The number of poets today who can earn their keep from royalties alone is vanishingly small, however much some would like to live in the past.
Colin

Jim Sheard said...

I've been feeling a bit sorry for Cope over the past couple of days, reading some of the more negative comments around this story.

I assume we would all agree that her right to feel aggrieved, complain, demand action etc. is unassailable, and that this principle is the assumed context to these discussions? It's her work, it's up to her what she feels should be done with it, however misinformed she may be on the specifics and the practicalities.

Rob said...

I certainly agree that Wendy Cope has every right to protect her own work in whatever way she sees fit. And in some cases, as I've pointed out, I completely sympathise with her. If someone uploaded a third of the poems in my chapbook to a website, I'd protest too. On the other hand, I'd be happy enough if someone uploaded one poem, with a link to the HappenStance online shop. But Wendy Cope clearly has every right to force anyone doing the same with one of her poems to take it down immediately.

Maybe the law needs to be more clearly defined. I guess the more defined it gets, however, the more restrictive it might become on useful, educational activity.

Emma said...

I think Wendy Cope's basically highlighted two problems here:-

1) Generally no one reproduces entire novels or short stories on the web without permission, but feel they can with poems because poems are short.

2) It's a rare poet that can earn sufficient income from publishing poems (most poets earn from workshops, readings, editing, teaching and other periphery activies) so why should poets tolerate activities that decrease their publishing income even further.

Personally, I feel that publishing individual poems on websites isn't going to do any harm - it's like sharing a poem with a friend, which is what people on forums are effectively doing. An odd poem here or there is like a trailer to entice people to buy the book (after reviewers might quote an entire poem to support their review - it's fair use). However, I'd object strongly to someone publishing 10 or more poems - that's the sort of number where people will feel they've seen enough not to buy the book.

Rob said...

I'm pretty much with you, Emma. I'll have to link to your blog. Looks good.