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online, I've ordered and read collections from foreign poets (especially Americans) who are virtually unknown and often unpublished in the UK.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.
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!
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.