Friday, March 23, 2007

Poetry Friday For Dummies ...

... which means, of course, I qualify to write this post. I've been researching public domain, fair use, and copyright in the hopes of using two Sara Teasdale poems in First Daughter: White House Rules (Dutton 2008), and I thought I'd share a few excellent resources with other ignorant bloggers.

When it comes to fair use, public domain, and copyright issues, head straight to Stanford University's well-written, easy to understand summaries. Here's how to stay out of trouble when reproducing images, excerpts, and even linking to other sites and blogs. Law Professor Lawrence Lessig is the author behind the site, and his mission statement is to "free culture." Whether you agree or disagree, his vision is worth thinking about:
While new technologies always lead to new laws, never before have the big cultural monopolists used the fear created by new technologies, specifically the Internet, to shrink the public domain of ideas, even as the same corporations use the same technologies to control more and more what we can and can't do with culture. As more and more culture becomes digitized, more and more becomes controllable, even as laws are being toughened at the behest of the big media groups. What's at stake is our freedom--freedom to create, freedom to build, and ultimately, freedom to imagine.
I know there's controversy over how much of our creative output can or should be in the public domain, but I recommend three tools as the way to make sure you're in compliance if you want to reproduce other people's creations. To find works in the public domain (meaning you may reproduce them sans permission):
  • use the search engines at the Gutenberg Library (download over 20,000 books in the public domain);
  • try Creative Commons (goal: to build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules);
  • or do a search on Google Books, where if a work is presented in full view, it's in the public domain (select the button labeled "full view" before you do your search).
In short, you may publish a full work on your blog if it was published before 1923 in the United States. Other rules apply to works created between 1922-1978 (generally protected for 95 years from original publication date if proper copyright formalities were followed), and since 1978 (generally protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.)

As for excerpts or snippets, fair use allows you to copy small portions of a work for "certain purposes such as scholarship or commentary." There are no hard and fast rules as to the number of words you may reproduce, but four factors come into play, and "the less you take, the more likely that your copying will be excused as a fair use. However, even if you take a small portion of a work, your copying will not be a fair use if the portion taken is the 'heart' of the work. In other words, you are more likely to run into problems if you take the most memorable aspect of a work."

Bottom line: take the time to find out if you're violating copyright law. As St. Paul would say, I've been the "chief of sinners," so I'm going to wend my way through my archives and wrest the Fire Escape into compliance. Please let me know if any information in this post is faulty, and I'll fix accordingly.

Update: As for reproducing book covers on your site/blog, a question raised in the comments section, I'm (tentatively) going ahead with it. An article by Carrie Russell in the 7/1/06 issue of School Library Journal argues that covers are in the "fair use" category. Amazon was recently challenged on the book cover issue, and won. It seems, then, that it's legal for online booksellers to reproduce covers, so if we link to and derive the image from a bookseller, we may be safe. Of course, I have absolutely no legal qualifications, so if anybody wants to chime in, please do so ...


  1. So, I suppose we aren't supposed to used images that we find on the Google image search. Is there a place where we can legally get free images of book covers when we do reviews?

  2. Sorry--use. My brain seems to be out-of-commission today.

  3. Mitali,
    This is wonderful. Thanks for putting this together. This is so good to know.

  4. Whimsy, no, images are verboten unless you secure permission or they've been placed in the public domain. Use the Creative Commons link to find out whether the latter is true. I updated the post for book covers -- great question.

  5. Thank you for doing this - very helpful. I am going to link you.

  6. Excellent review and summary.
    As a school librarian I try VERY HARD to model good copyright manners, proper citations etc.

    The whole reason I signed up as an Amazon Associate was so I could legally show the covers of the books. They click through to Amazon.

    On the other side, it is important to understand users DO have rights under Fair Use. I know some librarians who are so worried about copyright compliance that they do not make "fair use" of the rights they do have.

    Reading a book aloud is NOT a violation!

  7. Yes, thank you very much!

    I recently had an extremely illuminating exchange with a (very kind but firm) author's agent over issues of copyright (after my very first time participating in Poetry Friday) and am somewhat chastened about the whole thing. I'm probably the person most knowledgeable about copyright issues in my school, and yet it turns out I didn't know much--or at least not enough--about this particular area.

  8. I was shocked, after doing the research, to realize how I have broken the rules. I like to think of myself as a goody-two-shoes, but I think I've been barefoot on the fire escape.

  9. Mitali, Thank you. Copyright and fair use are one of the biggest topics I deal with at school

  10. Great post and great references. Thanks so much!

  11. I really appreciate this too. Thanks so much!

  12. You're very welcome! Thanks for all the great poetry excerpts you share on your site.

  13. Extremely useful and informative post - thank you for sharing what you have learned.

    To those of you who want to use images on your blogs - skip google images and head straight to You can download a plug in that works with most blogging platforms that offers up images related to your post - and they are all safe to use - and are automatically credited.