Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Copyright, Plagiarism, and Litigation

by lizard

There are some comments I don’t know how to respond to, so I don’t. I got one recently I’ve been thinking about, but I still don’t know how to respond to it. Here it is:

With havin so much written content do you ever run into
any problems of plagorism or copyright violation?
My blog has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either authored myself
or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my
permission. Do you know any techniques to help stop content from being ripped
off? I’d definitely appreciate it.

This is terrain I’ve remained almost willfully ignorant of, so take that as a disclaimer. That said, I post original poems written under the pseudonym William Skink, and the way I do it is probably pretty stupid. I haven’t had a problem with my “intellectual property” being reproduced without my permission because I wouldn’t make issue with it unless someone was trying to pass it off as their own in order to profit from it, which actually is a concern of mine. So I should probably become less ignorant regarding my own needs and rights as a poet using a blog to “publish” poems.

I also reproduce the original content of other poets with, I would hope, enough attribution to steer those interested toward doing something crazy, like actually buy a book of contemporary poetry. That doesn’t happen much in the states.

Another reason I wanted to write this post is because the issue of poetic plagiarism has popped up, and it just so happens the perpetrator was caught assembling other poets lines of verse in a manner I recently experimented with, which you can read here (with proper attribution).

The poetic perp is Australian poet Andrew Slattery, and if you buy the premise of this New Zealand Listener article, then Andrew is but a symptom of a worldwide epidemic of poetic plagiarism:

Normally a poet would be delighted to be mentioned in the same breath as Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. But for rising Australian talent Andrew Slattery, the trouble is that he’s enjoyed their company because he’s nicked their lines.

Slattery’s “daring deception”, writes Susan Wyndham for the Sydney Morning Herald, was discovered after fellow poet Anthony Lawrence searched passages online. Just one of his poems, the prize-winning “Ransom”, was found to be almost entirely “made up of 50-odd poets’ work”. Elsewhere, he’d claimed as his own lines by everyone from Nietzche to Tom Waits.


For you poetry nerds who want to dig deeper into this nest of poetic thievery, British poet Katy Evans-Bush weighs in here. I’ll quote just the first two paragraphs:

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the past couple of weeks have brought yet more sharks to the surface: it begins to seem that there’s no one left out there writing their own stuff. In one rather dismaying example, a poem disqualified from its previous place as winner of a major competition can’t even make way for the poem in 2nd place, because that one was by last year’s plagiarist, Christian Ward.

The Carcanet poet Matthew Welton has written a long, thoughtful blog post about discovering he had been systematically plagiarised – by yet another poet, called CJ Allen, even before the Christian Ward scandal broke. (And CJ Allen has a poem on the shortlist for this year’s Forward Prize for best single poem! No one knows if it’s plagiarised.) Graham Nunn, the Australian ‘cento artist’ who used his patchwork poems to build an actual career, complete with grants, and ran a respected poetry festival, has introduced a new putative motive into the arena: the poetry millions. The usual self-justifications are turning to partisan invective in the Australian press as Nunn’s friends inveigh against Ira Lightman – the ‘poetry sleuth’ who is hunting these infidels down like snarks. Ira’s business is simply to shine the light of day. Everything else comes after. My Facebook is more than abuzz; it’s aroar.

My Facebook certainly isn’t buzzing or roaring about any of this, but it is an interesting dilemma. Is there a crisis of originality occurring? Does this explain hipsters? Why should anyone care about this?

Going back to the original comment, there are techniques one can utilize, and litigation is certainly one of them. A church in Massachusetts learned about this technique the hard way:

So you think copyright law doesn’t really apply to your church, since you’re a non-profit? Or maybe you figure no big time copyright lawyers will come knocking on your door over something printed in your modest church newsletter?

Think again.

A Massachusetts Conference church recently received a letter demanding $2,500 in damages for printing a copyrighted poem in their monthly newsletter. A parishioner had used the poem – The Dash, by Linda Ellis – in a tribute to his mother written for Mother’s Day.

As it turns out, the poem, which pays homage to “the dash” between a person’s birth and death dates, is often read at funerals, and a number of churches, synagogues and other organizations have made the mistake of printing it in newsletters and posting it online. Some have received letters seeking $5,000 or even $7,500 in damages, according to various articles online. Ellis’ website explicitly denies anyone the right to publish her poem, and she is known to aggressively pursue those who print or post it without permission.

That is one way of doing business.

  1. And not a very good one in my opinion. Sounds like a good way to have people go from admiring your work to thinking ‘how could such an asshole write that?’

    There comes a point for authors when you go from being happy your work’s being ripped off (hey, they like me) to a little ticked it’s being ripped off too much (hey, where’s my money).

    Copyrights are created when you create the work. But with the web many sites aren’t concerned about that. They’ll put your content up line for line.

    The only thing I could suggest is submitting your sitemap to Google so they index that content first. When the other site pops up on their radar with it they’ll get dinged for duplicate content and go down in the rankings. I have a lot of Russian sites linking to me and I’m sure my SEO content is showing up on sites over there.

    • lizard19

      I’ve received direct and indirect feedback from 4 published poets, and it was mostly positive. one poet pointed out a screw up in format, which I fixed immediately. I also sent him an e-mail offering to take down the post.

      with my stuff, it hasn’t popped up anywhere, as far as I know, but if it did, a link to the original post would be sufficient. but if someone is trying to make money off my work, that would be a different story. poets, even the relatively well known ones, don’t make much money with their work because Americans don’t really buy many books of poetry. I buy lots of books of poetry, so the work of other poets reproduced here almost always comes from a book I have spent money for.

      anyway, thanks for commenting, Greg. it’s nice to have some new voices around here.

  1. 1 152 Poetry Posts to Celebrate April, National Poetry Month | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Copyright, Plagiarism and Litigation […]

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