January 29, 2011

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

Filed under: Poetry — crcb @ 11:22 pm
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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‚Äôs 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.



October 29, 2009

Modernist poetry and copyright maximalism

Paul Zukofsky, heir to poet Louis Zukofsky and his copyrights, thinks he gets to decide what “fair use” is — and it doesn’t include quoting his father, even for an academic dissertation, without Paul’s permission and, in many cases, a fee. He says he generally waives the fee for dissertations, but you are then forbidden to publish the dissertation.

A few things strike me about this copyright notice, in addition to the overreaching.

  1. I’m a poet myself. A poet’s son should realize there’s little money in poetry. Maybe a bit in greeting card verse, but that hardly describes the works of Louis Zukofsky. (But according to Paul, his father didn’t realize this economic truth, either. A triumph of hope over experience? Or did he, as Paul implies, actually transmute enough verse into cash to leave a comfortable inheritance to his wife and son?)
  2. If Paul Zukofsky really wants to profit from his father’s work, he’s going out of his way to eliminate free publicity and destroy goodwill in the literary community. “I urge you to not work on Louis Zukofsky, and prefer that you do not.” That’s one of the milder statements, with no mention of lawyers or courts or lifelong enmity.
  3. This might be a case of imprecise wording, but Paul seems to think he can collect a toll even on references to his father: “I hardly give a damn what is said about my father (I am far more protective of my mother) as long as the name is spelled properly, and the fees are paid.”
  4. I get the impression that Paul Zukofsky doesn’t think highly of the arts. He refers to interest in music and literature as “misguided,” and to a career in the arts as a “so-called profession.” I won’t speculate on possible biographical reasons for this distaste; I only note that he’s happy to profit from somebody else’s work in the literary field.

(Climbs on soapbox)

My father was a TV repairman. I’m not getting paid for work he did. I’m not even getting paid for work I did thirty years ago. Since the stated purpose of copyright (in the USA) is to promote the useful arts and sciences — in other words, to encourage creation — copyrights should be neither hereditary, nor too long-lasting. I propose a compromise: let copyrights be inherited, but give them an expiration date of 20 years. That’s 20 years from creation, not from the death of the author. If he lives longer than that — well, he won’t be the first parent ever to outlive his wealth. I’m not guaranteed an income from my own labor, much less somebody else’s.

And by the way, I usually publish my poetry under a Creative Commons license.

(Off soapbox)

Credit where it’s due

I originally found this story on Harriet the Blog, which notes that — perhaps in response to Paul’s copyright notice — an unauthorized electronic edition of Louis Zukofsky’s most famous work, “A,” has appeared online. I don’t condone this act of piracy, but I understand the provocation.

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