January 29, 2011

Center for Social Media’s Fair Use in Poetry: a one-sided response

Filed under: Poetry — crcb @ 11:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

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

When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold, and Commerce settles on every tree…
— William Blake

Through following Cory Doctorow on Twitter, I became aware of a BoingBoing post that led me to the Center for Social Media’s “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry” document (; there’s a link to the PDF version on this page).

I don’t intend to do an in-depth analysis of this document, but I would like to share some visceral responses.

Most of what the Center for Social Media says about fair use is not new, and I’m not sure why poetry is considered a special case. However, there are portions that raise my ire — mostly in the introductory section. For instance, this bit: “However, poets, especially those not working in and for new media formats, expressed anxiety about how new media might affect their ability to make money from their work and to establish and advance academic careers.” Quoting this out of context gives a one-sided impression of their motives, but it is a sentence that gave me pause. Not the least because — money? Really? Who thinks there’s significant money to be had in poetry? You’d earn a better hourly rate scouring the beach for coins and scrap metal. (Unless you’re Jewel.)

Another sentence of concern from the introductory portion: “Fair use is widely and vigorously employed in many professional communities.” The implication here is that poetry is a profession. It is not. A vocation, perhaps, but not a profession. And thank goodness for that! (But I’ve written about that elsewhere.)

Please read the whole document, because I’m only quoting the parts that get my dander up, but a final one from the introductory section, maybe the worst: “This guide identifies seven situations that represent the poetry community’s current consensus about acceptable practices for the fair use of copyrighted materials.” (Emphasis mine.) Poets, the people of the Center for Social Media claim to speak for you and me. Do they? Isn’t “consensus of poets” a contradiction in terms? If not, it should be.

When it comes to the specifics of fair use, there’s one concept that recurs: “Uses that are solely ‘decorative’ or ‘entertaining’ should be avoided.” I have at least two issues with this:

  1. It’s a mighty stuffy definition of art that dismisses the decorative and entertaining — certainly not a definition this poet embraces!
  2. Shouldn’t a group that claims to speak for the community of poets (a community, it implies, of professional writers) understand the proper use of quotation marks?

However, they save the best for last: Situation 7, Literary Performance. I go to a fair number of poetry readings, but that’s mostly poets reading their own work. The CSM is concerned that someone other than the poet might read that poet’s work in an unapproved manner. But not to worry, they’ll tell you what’s approved. You may read work from another poet as long as either it is part of a performance that includes your own work, or it’s part of a celebration of that poet. So if I wanted to read from Jewel (to continue picking on her) so that we could all have a hoot at what a stinker she is at this poetry game — that’s a no-no. Unless I follow it with one of my own poems.

While this document provided me with a good half-hour of entertainment, I suppose the biggest mystery about the whole thing is who the CSM thinks will care, in the long run. Maybe those career poets they mention. You know, the ones making all the money.




  1. I’m glad that you found something useful in the document, as well as irritating! We’ve found in working with a range of creative communities that having a clearer understanding of fair use has been able to liberate imagination, permitting creators to create and their gatekeepers (e.g. publishers, programmers) to let surface a wider range of work. Briefly, more and better creativity. The reason why professional communities are referenced is that in professional communities (e.g. mainstream journalism, broadcast news) sometimes fair use practices are articulated in a way that they are not necessarily in other creative communities; that is why we know that fair use is vigorously practiced. The confidential meetings held across the country surprised us in the way in which it was possible to see common opinions and understandings surface across very disparate poetic practices. The conclusions that poets came to as a group, overall, may not be that of any one poet, but they do reflect what people told us. By “us,” I mean the co-principal investigators of the project–Peter Jaszi of the Washington College of Law, American University; Kate Coles of the Harriet Monroe institute of the Poetry Foundation; Jennifer Urban of the UC Berkeley School of Law, and myself.

    Comment by Pat Aufderheide — January 30, 2011 @ 9:15 am | Reply

  2. […] True to their expressive inclinations, poets themselves have a fair bit to say in response to this guide. It has generally been lauded as a significant and helpful step forward. “[W]e’ve needed something like this for some time,” observed one; “the document represents a huge step in the right direction,” offered another. Despite such praise, the guide has also attracted some criticisms, mostly to do with the lack of popular input from a wide range of poets. One critic remarked: “Isn’t ‘consensus of poets’ a contradiction in terms?” […]

    Pingback by IP Osgoode » Poetry and Fair Use: Best Practices for Parody, Satire, Remixes, Epigraphs and Other Uses — February 13, 2011 @ 10:18 pm | Reply

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