Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Note on Copyright

I've been asked a few questions about the copyright tags below the poems, the most common being, '[Where/how] Did you get permission to repost that poem?" and "[Where/how] Can I get permission [etc.]?" I hope this note will help make things a bit clearer.

A copyright is a legal privilege (a 'patent' or 'monopoly') that a state grants a work's creator, giving him or her the exclusive right to allow or forbid additional copies of the work. There is no copyright recognized in either natural or common law, and until the 18th century there was none in any country's statutory law, either. (The earliest example of copyright legislation was the Statute of Anne in Britain in 1709, which protected books for a maximum of 21 years.)

Accordingly, the terms and duration of copyright vary for different countries. Through the 20th century, though, there was a large degree of standardization brought about by international treaties. Nowadays all copyrights in printed works (with a known author) last for the author's lifetime plus x number of years ("Life+x"); but there is still considerable disagreement on the value of x.

While some countries' legislation sets the copyright term as low as Life+25 years, that is superseded for those countries that signed the 1886 Berne Convention. That treaty set a minimum copyright term of Life+50, while allowing signatory states to set  longer terms. At one extreme, then, are countries like Canada (where The Betty Blog is published) that adhere to that  Life+50 minimum. Almost all the poems published on The Betty Blog are public domain in Canada and those other countries (meaning their authors died more than 51 years ago). Those poems that are copyrighted in Canada are either by me, or published with the permission of another living author. The latter are indicated by the phrase, "All rights reserved by the autho- Used with permission".

At the other extreme are Mexico (which has a term of Life+100) and Cote d'Ivoire (Life+99). If a work is copyrighted in either of those countries (but not in Canada), then it carries the tag line, "All rights reserved by the author's estate - Please do not copy." That does not mean the work is copyrighted in the country where you live, as 2010, depending on the year of an author's demise, could fall anywhere between Life+50 and Life+100 for that author.

If an author died at least 101 years ago, then the work is not at present copyrighted anywhere in the world. Such works are tagged, "Poem is in the public domain" -- meaning that anyone is free to reproduce them.

So: how do you determine if you may legally copy a "Please do not copy" poem? First, check the Poetry and Verse Archive, to find the date that the author died. (If there are no dates beside the author's name, then the author is still alive and the poem is therefore copyrighted; the one exception to that being Tom Bishop, who explicitly assigned all his "wordpiles" to the public domain.) Then, check the copyright term in your country as listed in this table. (Since the term generally runs to Dec. 31, add one year to be safe). If the years since the author died exceed the length of the copyright term, then the poem is in the public domain and you may copy it without permission.

For example: suppose you live in Australia, the U.K., or the U.S. Then the copyright term in your country is Life+70. You may copy poetry by W.B. Yeats (who died in 1939) or anyone who died before him. However, you may not copy poetry by John Gillespie Magee (who died in 1941), or anyone who outlived him, without permission from the current copyright holder.

There are exceptions --eg,  the "posthumously published" rule, the "rule of the shorter term," and "Creative Commons". The last two allow one to copy otherwise copyrighted works; so disregarding them will not put anyone in violation of the law. As for the first: To see if a poem was posthumously published, just compare the date on the poem with the death date given for the author.  So those exceptions can be set aside for now; though I intend to go into them, in particular the last, at another time.

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