Thursday, August 9, 2007

Copyright Conundrum: Nancy's Poetry Website

During my studies I was fortuitous enough to not only have friends of mine read my blog and tell me that it was helpful but also to have friends who experienced some of the very issues my blog entries touch upon. I’ll be presenting their stories here (with names and details changed to protect the innocent!) along with my thoughts. I’ll put each story in a separate entry to make them easier to read.

My friend Nancy is a lover of all things literary. She’s a big supporter of the arts and of emerging artists. She has a master’s degree in literature and taught the subject at the undergraduate level. And she’s also a great writer herself. So when it comes to the written word, I’d have to say she’s a pretty big proponent.

She’s also relatively web-savvy. She’s got blogs and websites for her various publishing and writing projects. I was perusing her online projects recently where I came upon one of her sites where she has posted poems. At first I thought what a neat idea it was—making poetry easily accessible on the web, especially since many of them were lesser-known poems that people might not otherwise have the opportunity to read. As I looked through them, I recognized some as older poems published decades—or even centuries—ago. But there were other poems I didn’t recognize. After one of these poems was a link, which I clicked. It led me to a website for an online magazine in which the poem had originally been published.

Had Nancy gotten permission to reprint the poem on her site? I went back to Nancy’s website to see if there was any information on there about getting permission to reprint, but there was none.

I was concerned. While I agreed with what Nancy was doing—exposing more people to poetry, the sadly most-overlooked form of literature out there it seems—I also knew that she could get into trouble for copyright infringement. Some of the poems she printed were old enough to be in the public domain, so that was no problem. But some other poems were recent creations, meaning that they were still protected by copyright.

Does this even matter? I thought. Nancy’s site is still in its infant growing stages and isn’t visited by a relatively small number of visitors each day, as compared to other websites. Who’s going to notice? Who’s going to care?

But then I thought further about the nature of the internet. The whole point of the internet, and specifically search engines, is to find the information you’re looking for quickly and easily. The internet’s biggest strength and weakness is simultaneously that information is so easy to access. It means that anyone can publish anything—which means copyright infringements flying everywhere. How much these infringements are enforced or even noticed is questionable; but I do think that creators of copyrighted materials are becoming more aware of the issue and are increasingly acting more upon it.

As I thought about who would notice Nancy’s site and its infringements, I imagined one of the poets Nancy had reprinted typing his own name into Google (admit it, we all do it!), and finding not only his poem “My Poem” on the original online magazine site but also on Nancy’s site.

“Wait a minute,” says Mr. Poet. “I know I sold this poem to Website X, but I don’t recall selling it to this Nancy character.” So he contacts someone from Website X, to see if perhaps they sold reprint rights to his poem and just neglected to tell him.

“Huh?” say the editors at Website X. They go to Nancy’s site. Trouble could thus begin. It could begin even if Mr. Poet never got paid a dime to publish his poem initially on Website X. He still probably gave the right to publish to Website X, and if Website X didn’t give anyone else permission to reprint the poem elsewhere (namely Nancy), that spells trouble.

I was in quite a quandary. What to do? How could I protect Nancy from possible infringement problems while still preserving the integrity of her site and helping her spread poetry to a greater audience of readers? (A lofty notion, perhaps, but one I find worthwhile.)

I knew that Nancy could use older poems that are in the public domain with no worries. But what about the poems still protected by copyright that were published on other sites? First I considered urging Nancy to seek permission from all the original publishers of the poems she wanted to post. But after considering this idea, I ruled it out as impractical. First off, Nancy's sole job was not this website; she worked full time and also managed several other projects that took up a considerable amount of her time. Seeking out the permissions would be quite time consuming, not to mention the lag time that would come between Nancy's request and the request being granted. Secondly, Nancy did not make any money from this project (or from some of her other projects) so she was in no position to pay for permissions should some of the original publishers request compensation. So that was out. As I thought about Nancy's problem further, I realized that the very medium she was working in provided a solution that would lessen her risk and allow her to continue with her project.

Nancy could provide the links to the original websites where the copyrighted poems appeared. Providing sources to copyrighted material, without actually reprinting the copyrighted material, is fine. Under fair use, I suggested that she write one or two lines of the poem and then provide the link to the original source. While not 100% fail-proof (remember how sketchy the “guidelines” for determining fair use are?), it was certainly safer than just reprinting the entire poem.

While Nancy was disappointed that she couldn’t just reprint the entire text of any poem she wanted, she was grateful for what I pointed out. “I was wondering if anyone would notice what I was doing,” she admitted. She was a little confused about how else to present her content—she knew she might get in trouble, but she loved poetry so much that she didn’t want to stop doing it—so she appreciated my suggestion and took me up on it.

Even though she no longer reprints whole poems and her site visitors now have to go through the extra step of clicking a link to go to a new page, I think she feels a little safer. And I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to have to take that extra step. The beauty of the internet is that we can present information in nonchronological ways. The way we read and access information is no longer constrained to conventional page format. We can click links to be taken to new pages, have more than one webpage open at a time, watch a video halfway through a story, and even listen to things while we read. What could have presented a problem for Nancy in another format is thankfully solved rather easily and simply due to the nature of the medium she’s using. Copyright conundrum solved.


Phantom City said...

This Nancy character sounds like a cool girl. And she's lucky to have such a smart friend like I can just tell has amazing GBs. You two should collaborate in the future. The white Cuban/Puerto Rican website for lovers of literature.

Phantom City said...

also...i have a question...what is the best way for Nancy to find out who owns the rights of a certain poet...and then to contact them for permission?