Should poetry be open-source?

If you’ve ever looked at one of my mother’s Appalachian Seasons books, you’ll see where I got my love of epigraphs. Each section of every book begins with a quote from one of her favorite authors, and each inclusion represents an exchange of letters with a copyright holder and the payment of some small fee. That’s because the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law only covers quotations when they are used as citations or for review purposes; an epigraph clearly represents a higher order of appropriation.

For one of my mom’s books — neither of us can remember which one now — she wanted to use four or five lines from her favorite poet, Mary Oliver. This was some fifteen or twenty years ago, before Oliver had become quite as widely known as she is now. The publisher directed her to Oliver’s agent, and the agent demanded $500 — roughly five times what the other authors or heirs, many of them more prominent than Oliver, were then asking. My mother is fiercely protective of her own rights as an author and a self-employed person, and always resents it when people imply she should share her expertise as a naturalist for nothing. But $500 for a few lines of poetry struck her as ridiculous, and she quickly found something else to go in its place.

I couldn’t help thinking that the real loss was Oliver’s. Poets don’t often get the chance to reach a receptive audience of nonspecialist readers — people who are not poetry nerds or graduate students in English. Of course, I have no idea whether this agent truly represented the poet’s own attitudes. It’s kind of a moot point, now, not only because Oliver’s work has achieved wide renown, but because her copyright is regularly violated by hundreds, perhaps thousands of bloggers doing precisely what my mother couldn’t get away with in print. It would hardly be worth a lawyer’s time to track down these violators and ask them to remove the lengthy quotes and reproductions of entire poems by Oliver that dot the internet. And I suspect this free, if illegal, exposure has earned the poet a good deal of revenue in book sales than she wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. (Not that the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award didn’t help, too. Something had to bring Oliver to all those bloggers’ attention in the first place.)

I’ve been thinking about this lately in the course of mulling over my own relationship with copyright law. I find the whole concept of intellectual property a little disturbing, especially the way it is now being extended to cover things like genetic sequences of naturally occurring organisms or certain combinations of common words. For years I’ve been content to license my work for reproduction under the popular Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivatives license from Creative Commons, which I sort of vaguely figured would provide others the kind of freedoms that I would like to have to reprint their own stuff.

But over the past year and a half, my involvement in the WordPress user community has exposed me to a lot of discussion about the closely related open source and free software movements. I’ve always admired the idealism of the WordPress core and plugin developers, people giving away their own works based on a simple and pragmatic faith that greater good will come from collaborative efforts. I started thinking, shouldn’t poetry be open-source as well? Don’t I treat it as such every time I post a translation or a stand-alone quote here at Via Negativa? What would my epic poem Cibola have been like without all those montages of epigrams preceding every section? The freedom to borrow and remix others’ creative works seems vital, even intrinsic to the creative process. What does the original creator lose by this?

I do want credit, of course — and I don’t want some bastard taking my works and claiming them as his own, preventing other people from making free with them as he did. To some people, the most selfless thing to do is to release one’s works from copyright protection altogether — put them in the public domain, or at most require attribution only. But I’m not interested in a quest for moral purity, and I think that any serious writer or artist who wants to pursue selflessness is in the wrong business: it takes a hell of a lot of ego to create. You really have to believe in the value of what you’re doing. The challenge is to let go of your children once they’re fully mature, and let them have their own lives. I found the GNU Project‘s argument for copyleft persuasive. (“Copyleft” is what Creative Commons refers to as “share alike”: the stipulation that anyone who distributes software or creative works, modified or otherwise, must pass along the freedom to copy or change them.)

In the GNU Project we usually recommend people use copyleft licenses like GNU GPL, rather than permissive non-copyleft free software licenses. We don’t argue harshly against the non-copyleft licenses — in fact, we occasionally recommend them in special circumstances — but the advocates of those licenses show a pattern of arguing harshly against the GPL.

In one such argument, a person stated that his use of one of the BSD licenses was an “act of humility”: “I ask nothing of those who use my code, except to credit me.” It is rather a stretch to describe a legal demand for credit as “humility”, but there is a deeper point to be considered here.

Humility is abnegating your own self interest, but you and the one who uses your code are not the only ones affected by your choice of which free software license to use for your code. Someone who uses your code in a non-free program is trying to deny freedom to others, and if you let him do it, you’re failing to defend their freedom. When it comes to defending the freedom of others, to lie down and do nothing is an act of weakness, not humility.

One morning a couple of years ago, I clicked onto a friend’s blog to find that he had appropriated the text from my most recent post and rearranged the lines into a poem, with a link back to the original. It was a clear violation of the Creative Commons license I had at the time. If he’d asked permission, I would’ve granted it, but he hadn’t, and it bothered me. It didn’t occur to me that he’d meant it as a surprise. When I challenged him about it, he reacted with umbrage, and implied that I should have been flattered — that his intent had been to pay homage and bring more readers to a great post. A couple of mutual blogging friends weighed in on my side, as I recall, and he took the post down shortly thereafter. We remained friends, rarely alluding to the incident thereafter.

Now I wonder, what the hell was I so bothered about? It seems like exactly the sort of thing that artists and poets should welcome. I love the notion of free cultural works — again derived from the open source/free software movement. The struggle over proprietary software reflects the desire of Microsoft and other developers not only to prevent copying and modification, but even to prevent access to the source code — hence “open source,” and hence the second basic freedom in the Free Cultural Works definition, “the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it.” There isn’t anything precisely analogous to source code in poetry; the creative process is a mystery to all of us. A lot of poets make a living from trying to teach the tools of the trade to others, and that’s excellent — there’s nothing in all of this open-source idealism that says people shouldn’t make money off it (as WordPress.com founder Matt Mullenweg was recently at pains to make clear).

But if I’m honest with myself, I must admit that my every-morning deep reading of several poems by another poet or poets often has a direct influence on whatever I then sit down and write, and not just in the vague sense of giving rise to a poetic mood. Quite often a specific image or turn of phrase will catch fire, and I’ll take that ember and light my own kindling with it. It’s usually too small a thing even to require crediting the author, and my use of it falls entirely outside the boundaries of their own conception, but I still feel indebted in some way. And the only way to repay that debt, I feel, is to write the best poem I can. Of course, sometimes the ember comes from something I observe, or a dream the night before, or an overheard snatch of conversation, but in every case it’s coming from outside. I’ve talked to plenty of other artists and poets, and read many more interviews, and they all tend to say something pretty similar: authentic inspiration comes from an encounter with the other. I guess that’s why it seems so absurd to me to try and assert ownership and control over ideas. The source code of the imagination is existentially open.

What does it mean for me as an author, though, to surrender the right to make money off of every appearance of my works? Because I can hardly hardly call my works free if I don’t let others market their remixes or translations. Initially I retained a noncommercial-use stipulation for all Via Negativa posts not marked as “Poems and poem-like things,” but that seemed too confusing, and besides, what’s the difference? If someone wants to reprint one of my essays or stories, as long as they give me credit and indicate if they’ve modified it, what the hell do I care? I suppose there’s always a remote chance that some musician will turn one of my poems into song lyrics, have a global hit, and make millions, but again I don’t see how that makes me any worse off than I would have been otherwise, without that recognition. And in most cases, I think, reputable commercial publishers do pay the originator of a work. Nothing in all of this stops me from peddling my work, if I have a mind to.

I don’t presume to imply that the way I’ve decided to free up my own work should be the rule for everyone. Many writers and artists see full copyright protection as a matter of basic respect, and lord knows freelancers have been exploited by publishers for a long time — in part because there are so many people willing to write for nothing, just for the thrill of seeing their names in print. The blogging revolution might change the equation a little, because now all of those wanna-be authors can simply start blogs, and find readers and affirmation that way. But I do wonder whether the sorts of people who see publication as a balm for their insecurities would be so desperate to get their names in print if artists and writers became a little less godlike, less inclined to continue to exercise control over their creations once they are loosed on the world. Collaborative efforts might take center stage. We might see the growth of a poetry culture similar to that of classical China, where lines were traded back and forth and poems were exchanged like letters, or Edo-period Japan, where poems we now regard as stand-alone haiku were actually written for communally composed linked verse sequences (in theory if not in fact). Given the unique opportunities for interaction that the internet provides, who knows would might happen if only the author’s name lay a little less heavily on the page?

73 Comments


  1. I don’t use a Creative Commons license for my site, perhaps because I had an editor pay me a hundred dollars for one of my article to include it in a book.

    I suspect my pictures are worth much more than my writing, and I’ve even sent high resolution copies to fellow bloggers who have asked to use the pictures.

    Every thing is certainly there to be seen by as many people as possible, and I don’t make any money. It costs me money to share it with others.

    But recently I found a web site that had used my RSS feed to post my entire site, and they’d inserted ads beside the entries. They claimed it was fair use of an RSS feed, but I saw it as anything but. I’m now considering whether I should limit my RSS feed to the first few lines like many writers do, but I like using an RSS reader and I hate to deny that accessibility to others.

    I thought about trying to pay my costs by using Google ads or Amazon ads, but they seemed to be contrary to my main message. So I certainly don’t want others using them to support advertising, particularly advertising that I have no control over.

    It’s a tough issue. Thanks for making me think about it again, Dave.

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  2. loren – Without a CC or GPL license, or some other such statement, presumptive copyright of course applies. I take it that’s what you meant.

    I decided not to bring in the whole scraper issue, because this post had already grown long enough. I too have had content scraped by sites that exist to game search engines – so-called splogs – but the only reason I know about it is because they included links back to the source posts. So I did get credit for it. In that case, I’d almost rather I didn’t get credit! But it didn’t really bother me to see my words reused for such a smarmy purpose; I found it more amusing than anything. I’m curious as to why you feel so protective of your own works in this regard?

    I certainly hope you don’t go to a partial feed as a result. Several blogs in my Google Reader have partial feeds, and quite often I don’t click through. I feel my primary obligation is to my readers, so I would never consider incoveniencing them like that. But all these are of course very personal reactions. I’m interested in hearing more about why you feel the way you do. (Gotta go to bed now, though. This post took days to write and I am TIRED!)

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  3. Excellent article, Dave, and something that I’ve been thinking about again lately. I’m still not sure about where I stand on some of it, but basically I feel that if someone wants to use something from my blog, they should at the very least credit me. But if they are using my work to make money for themselves, then I think that’s illegal. There have been many cases of artist’s works copied and sold on eBay under another person’s name. Or copies of Picasso, Van Gogh, etc. sold as originals – another whole ballgame, I know.

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  4. Thought-provoking post, Dave.

    Early on, I decided to not fret about things I cannot control, and the undetected use of my work is one of those things. I don’t want to spend energy trying to detect such use, either.

    But what intrigues me more is your idea of open-source, collaborative poetry. I love it when a poem dance begins on my blog — it’s always spontaneous, and always delightful.

    I don’t know what Poetry Thursday is going to evolve into — but maybe it will be something along these lines.

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  5. It’s an interesting question. I use the attribution-non commercial licence both for the blog and everything I post on Flickr, just to retain some minimal control over how my work is used.

    And I think of myself as being very easy-going about it, but recently I got a message through Flickr from someone who had taken two of my pictures (of a long-finned pilot whale) and used them to illustrate a site they were developing about mammals of North America. And on the site, he’d given me credit and specified the CC licence. But his site carried advertising, which put it in breach of the non-commercial aspect of the licence, and I asked him to take them down.

    In some ways I feel it shouldn’t have bothered me; at least he contacted me, he had given me credit, and it’s not like I expected to make any money from those pictures ever. I think it’s the fact the whole thing was presented as though he was making use of the CC licence and in fact he had ignored the terms. As though all the different CC licences could be lumped to together as de facto permission to use the work. If he’d asked me in advance, or even mentioned when he contacted me that he knew he was in breach of the licence, I would probably have said he could use the pictures.

    And all my taking offence at what he did was completely hypocritical because the photo of a scallop which I used as the basis for my current blog header was found somewhere on the internet and I didn’t ask permission to use it.

    In some ways the CC licence options have it all backwards from a poetry collaboration perspective; there’s a non-derivative works licence where what you really need is a ‘derivative works only’ licence. I don’t mind someone using one of my poems to make something else: it’s if they reproduce it as I wrote it that I want some control.

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  6. although i like you don’t want anyone claiming to have written my work… what harm could come even if they did.. especially in the area of poetry… who do you know that has actually achieved any form of richness beyond the enchanting visuals and heart touching words…in life???? if i have to die to be heard… carry on…

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  7. Interesting article. My view is as long as people credit me in quotes and don’t make money out of my work, I don’t mind. I prefer to be asked beforehand but on the occasions where I’ve found out afterwards, I’m flattered rather than anything else. As for my crafts, they’re ideas, and the more people use those ideas the better. I like the ideaof collaborative poetry, the art of renga (interlocking haiku) is alive and well in Scotland.

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  8. Protecting your rights to a piece you have written is only minimally an act of ego. It has more to do with money and livelihood. Your reputation as a writer and thinker and analyst is on the line in your public writings, and that equals money–even if the pieces being written are not directly remunerated. You want to be credited for what you write because you are building an opus, a representation of self as a marketable commodity. You are the owner and operator of the means of production, and you deserve fair compensation for what you produce, even if that compensation is an intangible effect on your reputation as an artist/scholar/writer.

    If you in no way make your living from the thoughts you put into words, then I’m not much convinced that you need copyright, or copyleft, protection.

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  9. marja-leena – I’m glad this resonated with your experience. You write, “if they are using my work to make money for themselves, then I think that’s illegal.” Of course it is – unless you are crazy enough to stipulate otherwise, as I have done. What my new Creative Commons license does is uncouple the matter of requiring attribution – which is still in force – with the question of whether money is made by someone else, which I realized I really don’t care about. But a license like mine still forbids incidents such as you describe, with people selling another’s work as if they had created it themselves.

    SB – Thanks for the response. It sounds as if we’re pretty much on the same wavelength here – and yes, your poem dances have been outstanding examples of internet-fueld collaboration. I wish you would agree to come do an issue of qarrtsiluni with that sort of approach.

    Harry – Come to think of it, I still have the attribution-noncommercial-noderivs license in lace at Flickr; maybe I’ll change that to at least allow remixes.

    I suspect that the conflicted emotions you express here are probably the norm for creative bloggers. I love your last point! Let me just repeat it for the benefit of skimmers:

    … there’s a non-derivative works licence where what you really need is a ‘derivative works only’ licence. I don’t mind someone using one of my poems to make something else: it’s if they reproduce it as I wrote it that I want some control.

    Very interesting perspective.

    paisely – You’re saying you don’t really mind if others claim your works as their own? That too strikes me as an interesting and valid perspective, although I personally feel rather strongly about the need to impose a “share alike” or copyleft condition, as I’ve said, in order to properly defend the freedom of all potential users.

    CGP – Thanks for weighing in. I’m glad to hear that renga has established a foothold in at least one part of the english-speaking world.

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  10. Brett – Very well-put and nuanced encapsulization of the argument for retaining credit as an author. Thank you. I like that you use the term “commodity,” here — i know you are as bothered by commodification as I am.

    People, go back and read Brett’s first paragraph. I’ll wait.

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  11. It’s the butterfly effect, isn’t it? There is a certain amount of ego in the fact that i arranged words in a certain way…to bring a certain feeling forth…but in the end…the words belong to all of us…as does this life,this space and these feelings.

    drawing lines of ownership only makes me feel more important, more significant.

    if what i say, catches fire in someone elses mind…i believe the spark is still the spark. even if the fire out-burns it.

    if that makes any sense at all.

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  12. wendy – Hi. Thanks for commenting. That makes plenty of sense. (I would be wary of reifying the spark overmuch, though – that’s just another kind of attachment, isn’t it?) The butterfly effect is a good image here.

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  13. In reply ot your question: Hmm. Let me think… Oh, right: FUCK no. (Pardon my Sahaptin.) I give enough of my self away, day to day. No one gets to treat my poems like they were an API for a plugin.

    Know what though? I have, shockingly, been free of the attentions of verse burglars.

    *sigh*

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  14. slightly off-topic but…I had coffee with a poet-prof type this morning…he advises his students to send stuff off to anywhere and everywhere right away, as soon as they begin to write the stuff and call it finished…to keep sending things off, to be persistent, to deal themselves in.

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  15. A well-written commentary. You mentioned (loosely) that each word we read somehow takes root and re-emerges in a potentially different fashion. When I don’t read poetry posts for a few days before posting my own, I find much similarity in thought and word of those current postings. I wonder how much of the process we truly own. Again, I enjoyed your post immensely!

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  16. Curt – Oh good, a strong reaction! Good to hear from a professional journalist.

    I like your poems a lot. And the translation from Lorca, too.

    quiet regular – That’s cool. I guess I know who you’re talking about; I hope to make his acquaintance soon. Very different advice from Borges’ famous admonition: “Read a lot, write a lot, and don’t rush into print.” That was my attitude too, once — but then I started blogging. Now I am much more of your professor friend’s opinion. For a blogger, it’s a big deal to sit on a post overnight, even. We get our stuff out, all right.

    Sending stuff off to magazines is good discipline, but it gets tiring after a while – especially since so few editors have the time to offer comments or critiques. Then, if it’s a print journal, and they actually publish something, one has to endure the acute discomfort of seeing an earlier version of one’s work in print (at least for those of us who are compulsive re-writers) and not be able to go back in change it the way one can with an online publication.

    Tumblewords – Thanks for commenting. Glad to hear some of this jibes with your own experience.

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  17. I wanted to clarify that I think copyleft protections are oftentimes more in tune with electronic media than old copyrights and are probably more honest about the derivativeness of all our work. (As our host puts it: “The source code of the imagination is existentially open.”) Copylefts are still protections, though, and as I said above, I think that’s important.

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  18. I mean, translate it and post it in my blog with the original reference, ahem. I’d love to share it with my community of readers.

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  19. In some ways the CC licence options have it all backwards from a poetry collaboration perspective; there’s a non-derivative works licence where what you really need is a ‘derivative works only’ licence.

    You mean like the sampling licenses?

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  20. I too wouldn’t mind other people using my works if that’ll bring me exposure. The way I see it, if we restrict ourselves, then we ‘ll never grow. I’m a designer with purely technical background who stumbled into poetry by chance, so anybody who’d take my works, improved it better, and in the process made me a better poet, I’m all for it… that is if they do a proper attribution, of course. I too want my 15 minutes of fame :)

    Thank you for this really thought provoking post.

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  21. I am glad you wrote this post as it epitomizes how the concept of Open Source affects attitudes towards Intellectual property rights in general. Open Source in its current legal form is perversely less than open and free and actually destroys freedom in a pervasive manner.

    These “free and open” movements with their new complex legal contracts actually are akin to genetic manipulation of the legal and commercial underpinning of our information society. They benefit those who want to use and plagiarize and never have to pay for copyright. The perverse thing is the attempt to create a legal frame to perpetuate itself virulently forcing anything based upon GPL based code to become GPL. Today these licenses have an affect like making an author lose his rights to the book because he quoted something from another author who made his work public domain.

    The ideological obsession to making things free takes the rights to profits away from the writers and creators forever and creates a parallel universe of work based on “Open and free” that can be printed without paying for the content. In the end the only one making money is the printer or maybe the factory in China. Granted this is simplifying things but its what it boils down to.

    Its scary to see Open Source ideology spilling into so many areas now even Poetry:) We have always had the concept and freedom to make things Public Domain and do not need complex synthetic creations that can have undesired consequences.

    Who again was it that said “Everything in life begins in mystery and ends in politics”?

    F.P.

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  22. miken – No, because those licences also do allow straight copying, as I understand them. It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, actually, but I though Harry’s point was interesting as a thought experiment.

    arboltself – Have fun! I know only enough Spanish to be dangerous, so you can be sure that whatever you come up with, I’ll regard it as a work of genius and be enormously flattered.

    joezul – Thanks for stopping by. I always like hearing from people who came to poetry from a technical or scientific background; the two moieties have a lot to learn from each other, in my opinion.

    T.S.M. – Thank you very much for taking the time to share your contrarian opinion.

    The perverse thing is the attempt to create a legal frame to perpetuate itself virulently forcing anything based upon GPL based code to become GPL. Today these licenses have an affect like making an author lose his rights to the book because he quoted something from another author who made his work public domain.

    If an author declares his work to be in the public domain, he signs away all rights. That’s not what we’re talking about here. Also, the nightmare scenario you evoke here is a reductio ad absurdum. Nothing in the CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Licence, or the GNU GPL, prevents licensor and licensee from coming to their own written agreement. Authors wishing to reprint my works in their own, fully copyrighted publications are free to contact me for permission, and I am free to suspend the provisions of this CC licence.

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  23. Hmmm. I was going to write about patenting organisms and genes, and the contracts scientists and engineers sign when they take jobs at universities, government agencies, and for-profit companies. I see that’s not where this discussion has gone, but for most of my professional life, I didn’t own my work. That included any work I did, including novels, computer programs or popular articles unrelated to the research in my job description. The big organizations claim rights to everything, and leave it up to the individuals to sue them if they care enough.

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  24. Rebecca – Thanks for the comment. You add a valuable perspective. It does still seem to me that the problem is precisely with the legal tools we’ve created to protect intellectual property rights, which almost always are for the benefit of the big guys. The rest of us are left like the original inhabitants of Manhattan, not realizing what we’ve given away, crowing over our handfuls of pretty beads. To me, the open source movement is very much of a piece with the movement against biopiracy – and even the movement to keep public drinking water from being privatized. It’s saying, there are things that shouldn’t be fenced in or roped off, for the good of everybody.

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  25. Dave and commenters, this is a very interesting and relevant discussion. From the standpoint of one who earns one’s living as a professional artist/writer/cartoonist, the issue of copyright (as someone above said) is a practical one as well as a ‘craft’ one: if you’ve spent your life learning your trade and practicing your craft and never let a work out of the house until you’ve polished it and tweaked it until it expresses to the best of your ability whatever it is you aimed to express, then you’re not going to look kindly on anyone who wants to mess about with it and change it perhaps beyond recognition. Working collaboratively is fine, as long as you agree from the start that a work is going to be collaborative, as in “exquisite corpse” or any other joint creative project. This isn’t a question of ego but of what one is trying to do in any particular art. We wouldn’t know what any work of poetry, literature, music, painting or sculpture originally looked like if everybody throughout history had been allowed to change them however and whenever they wished – remixed Shakespeare? Bach? Giotto? Van Gogh? Dylan Thomas? etc. The bloggers’ world is a new creative phenomenon and I’m all for the sharing/interacting that it allows and encourages and issues of copyright within this world are just as you’ve described. Some grey areas will need to be clarified in future, for instance: is a poem or short story or painting posted on a blog different from the same thing published in a book or exhibited in a gallery? Would I agree to visitors at an exhibition of my work to daub their own ideas over it? Or if you were giving a reading, would you want someone to interrupt your verses to add their own words? H’m.

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  26. Natalie – But if you sell a work to somebody, they have the right to do with it whatever they want, don’t they? Include destroy it? And when you do a painting or piece of graphic artwork parodying or quoting from some famous, iconic painting, isn’t there already the sense among artists and the public that that’s perfectly O.K.? See, that’s why I mostly stuck to writing and poetry here. As soon as you start talking about a physical object, it’s a very different dynamic, I think.

    Shakespeare has been remixed – every time someone puts one of his plays on. He himself probably never performed all five acts as written of any one of his plays at any single perfromance. In fact, he didn’t even care about preserving them as written artifacts, they say. With Bach, or any other composer, it’s the same story – every performance is a new interpretation. We don’t even play him on the same instruments anymore. And at one time, when western classical music still included real cadenzas, you could say that the remix was an essential part of the performance, just as it is in jazz. Of course, people were careful to preserve the original scores. You seem to be implying that the original works would be somehow diluted or overwhelmed by the remixes, but I don’t think that’s what happens. If I thought it were, I wouldn’t be in favor of the copyleft concept.

    You’re entitled to your point-of-view, of course; I just completely fail to understand how someone building upon your work and “changing it beyond recognition” in their own version does anything to harm you or the original work.

    Anyway, I’m awfully tired, so I’ll have to stop there. Thanks very much for weighing in on this.

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  27. Dave, your post and these comments were a pleasure to read. Your paragraph ending, “The source code of the imagination is existentially open” resonates with me esepcially. And Curt cracks me up.

    You acknowledge in the aforementioned paragraph, though, that it seems absurd to “assert ownership and control over ideas.” Copyright law (or at least the law as I remember it — it has been over ten years) splits hairs: it makes a distinction between protecting ideas and protecting the expression of ideas (or of anything else). Patent law protects the some instances of the former, and copyright law protects the latter.

    The distinction breaks down most strikingly, I think, with poetry. In what other genre is idea (or “content”) and expression so inseparable? I’m not sure if I feel any differently about poetry than I do any other type of literature as far as copyright protection is concerned, though. (I’ve always used the Creative Commons 1.0.)

    And you’re right about ego and creation, at least with respect to writing. Though I’ve been wondering lately if children, many of whom create a lot more than I do, use as much ego to create as I do.

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  28. Peter – I’m glad you didn’t find this completely objectionable. (For the benefit of other readers of this thread, we should make it clear that you are a former lawyer, and now an English teacher and poet.) And the following –

    a distinction between protecting ideas and protecting the expression of ideas

    – makes me wish I had bounced a draft of this off you before I published it, which I almost did.

    No one will ever accuse small children of lacking ego, but I guess I know what you mean: they seem much less attached to their artistic and literary products than we adults are. They want to be praised for them, but after that they don’t care. Kind of like bloggers.

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  29. Just a brief post script:

    “But if you sell a work to somebody, they have the right to do with it whatever they want, don’t they? Include destroy it? ”
    Actually no. There’s a law about that concerning visual artworks but it would take too long to find and quote. I had occasion to refer to it years ago when a very large mural I was commissioned to paint in a public place, which took me over a year to work on and which featured portraits of many old people and children who used the center, was completely covered in red paint a few years later by the next administrator of the place.
    But I do see your point and generally agree with it. As long as originals are kept intact, I absolutely support interpretations and quotes etc. from artworks of any kind. What I meant was, if all the originals of works by X,Y, and Z had been “altered beyond recognition” by anyone and everyone then we’d never know what those originals were like.

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  30. Natalie – Yes, I agree. That’s why I do support retaining some version of copyright, as I’ve done with the works on this site (and my two online poetry books). For online works, requiring a link back to the original makes it expecially easy for readers to see what has been altered.

    Thanks for following up and correcting me on the destruction of artworks. (I wonder if the U.S. has similar laws?) I always feel bad for the original artist when I see a mural painted over. That must have really hurt to see all your work erased like that. Damn.

    I think I’ll stick to poetry.

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  31. Ach, late to the party. Dave, excellent post. I think there’s a big difference between that remix of your work by a friend, and the appropriation of creative work for someone else’s gain: whether monetary or to pass it off as their own or whatever. The difference is in intention: the first was a gift, in a way, which you only realized after the fact. The other uses can vary from outright stealing to the legitimate use of a quote to emphasize and enlarge a point.

    I think the old publishing industry practice of allowing quotes of 100 words or so without permission is not a bad one – that allows epigraphs and short quotes, and makes you think about longer ones. I consider myself a professional artist and writer, and have spent all my life trying to produce the best work I can. That’s what I have to offer. People have tried to take advantage of artists and get them to give away their work for free for centuries – I’ve seen it so much in my work with arts organizations, and it often boils down to rich people using artists as pets or adornments, with no understanding of what their lives or struggles are actually about. there are, of course, many exceptions, but I find that attitude really offensive. Artists have never been good at educating the public about what they do or why it’s important, but as society becomes even more oblivious to this, and digital art of all forms is available to be taken, both abuse and pressure on artists to “accept the situation and adjust to it by “not caring” increases.

    I think it’s fair to expect compensation for creative work when that’s the deal, and expect respect for its origins (meaning: ask before using, and give proper credit) when we’re putting our work out on the web. If we want to do projects that are “Open Source” from the start, as a way to open up discussion and encourage experimentation and creativity — then that’s another subject, and a good one.

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  32. But that is precisely the subject I was trying to address, Beth: my personal choice to make my poetry, and other stuff here, into free cultural products. And yes, I am encouraging others to consider making the same choice — but only if their priorities are roughly in line with my own. That is why I chose to write this in a personal, exploratory style, rather than, say, as a manifesto.

    I have made a conscious decision not to care if others happen to make a profit off my works, because for me, it’s more important that my work get out there. I think, however, that I omitted to mention one essential consideration: writing poetry isn’t normally a money-making activity in our culture. Even the most well-regarded poets are lucky to sell a few thousand copies of each book, and few of the periodicals pay anything. However, there’s some law of social interaction that says that the smaller the reward, the more vicious the competition for it. I don’t know if that’s the reason or not, but the modern American poetry scene is riven with conflicts and jealousies. Releasing my work from the strictest copyright protections is, in part, a protest against the po biz. I should’ve said that in the post.

    I think there’s a big difference between that remix of your work by a friend, and the appropriation of creative work for someone else’s gain: whether monetary or to pass it off as their own or whatever.

    Again, the current CC licence is not tantamount to releasing my work from all copyright protection. Attempts to take anything I’ve written and pass it off as the work of someone else is not permitted. If someone can make money off my poetry, more power to them. As for the prose and photos, they’re only here in supporting roles as far as I’m concerned. Any distribution, with or without modification, is free advertising for my site. (You can’t call it appropriation if it’s not forbidden, can you?)

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  33. I’m still on the road, so straggling along after the party. However. Excellent piece and discussion. I’ve been putting my photos up in an online gallery since 2002, and writing a blog for a little over a year. I quite regularly find my photos being used in blogs or on websites – sometimes with permission, but usually without. Over time, I’ve come to regard the whole thing along the lines of what SB has written above:

    Early on, I decided to not fret about things I cannot control, and the undetected use of my work is one of those things. I don’t want to spend energy trying to detect such use, either.

    Here’s my two cents worth on the subject — not too organized, but for what it’s worth:
    When I license the use of my photos, I generally have to supply a high rez image, so I post only low rez versions. That controls much of the “commercial value” of the images, although there’s also a bit of business in stock photos destined for the net. I haven’t got the time to search around to see if some turkey is swiping my low rez images and selling them to someone else. I assume it’s probably happening, but I can’t do much about it anyhow, so why bother.
    As far as “use” goes, I do ask people to let me know when they wish to use an image for some purpose – and I’ve rarely turned anyone down for any reason except in a couple of cases where people wanted to use an image in a commercial way (for example, as part of a software program that was intended to be sold). I regularly hear from professors or students who wish to use my images in their powerpoint presentations at universities. Also, I hear from those wishing to use my photos as reference materials for all kinds of art and objects (last week, I heard from a woman who wanted to use some of my spider photos in a quilt she was making!). One time, I received an email from a lady who had been using my insect photos as reference for “folk art fishing lures” that she’d been selling on eBay. Apparently, she started feeling some remorse about using the images without telling me, so she wrote to show me photos of them (hell, until then, I didn’t even know where *was* such a thing as a folk art fishing lure!). Anyhow, I’m pretty cool with usage of images so long as there are links posted that will lead someone back to my image galleries or blogs (after all, that’s how I make sales). The only thing that bugs me quite a bit — and I know this is getting off-topic, but it’s my pet peeve as an artist. I get quite a number of requests to use photos in books, museum displays, etc.. where the person or company doesn’t want to pay anything for a high rez image. I find that troublesome as it implies that images aren’t worth anything. Also, it’s a nuisance to look up the images in my drives. As well, once someone has an image file, they can do anything with it.. make prints, posters, or whatever, and I’ve lost control of the file forever. As an artist, I find it irksome that a museum will pay an exhibit designer and a writer for the text panels, then budget for materials, lamination, etc.. and then *not* set aside even a small budget for licensing images (I was recently approached by a museum that wanted to use one of my snowshoe images on a laminated display panel at the entrance to a new exhibit, but didn’t want to pay anything for it). I’ve run into a similar situation with contractors who are writing brochures for natural resources departments in the U.S. and Canada – who are being paid to write and assemble the materials, but don’t budget for photos and then expect photographers to supply images “for free” because the brochure is about wildlife or invasive species, etc… I’ve started to take a harder line on these as I know some of these contractors and they are making ridiculously good money on government contracts, so their wheedling of images and photos from artists and photographers is really just a form of parasitism.

    When it comes to my writing, I believe I”m pretty easy going about use. However, I must admit that my nose did get a little out of joint about a year ago when I found my “Burning Silo” story swiped and posted in its entirety on someone’s blog without any attribution. I asked them to either attribute it or take it down and they took it down rather than provide a link to my site (go figure that one). I haven’t posted a copyright or use policy one way or the other on my blog, but on my photo galleries, I do ask people to email me for permission to use photos. I doubt that I hear from a fraction of those who are using images but what the heck.

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  34. Oops on the format of that reply — also that it’s very long. Guess I had more to say about the topic than I thought!

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  35. Hi Bev – Thanks for the in-depth response. (Formatting corrected; sorry I don’t have a plugin to allow commenters to edit their own comments.)

    I get quite a number of requests to use photos in books, museum displays, etc.. where the person or company doesn’t want to pay anything for a high rez image.

    Galling and exploitative attitude! Hard to believe that of museums, in particular. I’d be a total hard-ass if I were you. You have a lot of hard-won expertise in addition to the time you spend in the field and in processing. Why shouldn’t they expect to pay you for that? Vampires.

    The person who stole your Burning Silo essay sounds like a plagiarist pure and simple. Pretty cool about the fishing lures, though – that’s definitely something to put in your resume!

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  36. Some things must be protected and some things must be ripped apart like lions at zebra flesh.

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  37. Dave – I thought the fishing lures were actually rather a fun thing! And yes, I’m becoming a “total hard-ass” when it comes to institutions and publishers who can and should pay for images. As an artist, I’ve come to feel that it’s not right to “give away” images as it makes it hard for other artists and photographers to sell their work as well. As you’ve mentioned, I have put a lot into building up my image collection (expertise, time, travel, being in the right place at the right time). That’s especially true of most nature photographers as you can just pull images out of thin air. Then there’s the investment in camera gear and computers, storage drives, etc… and for artists, it’s canvases, paints, and so on. Artists have to eat, pay for a roof over their heads, and cover their other living expenses. It’s not like these things are given to artists for free just because no one wants to pay their for their work. It really bugs me that it’s like pulling teeth to get paid for images. I can’t imagine someone calling a lawyer or accountant and expecting to get them to do something for free. What is it about artists that makes people think they can live on nothing? I suppose the most irksome thing is, that when it really comes down to it, some of the most memorable things about our world are words, music, images, sculpture, and are created by artists. We all place a high value on these creations – we want to read, see, listen to these works – but many times, we are reluctant to toss a coin in the hat. Kinda pathetic.

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  38. I think there are a lot of broad arguments made for what is essentially a personal choice. Dave, your thoughts on the state of poetry are exactly right– there’s not much money to be made, and GPL- or CC-licensing your work does make it easier for someone else to “advertise” you. For some writers, that will be the best course of action, because they are aggressively looking for a greater audience. Others will remain fiercely protective of the current literary publishing system, and won’t want work re-distributed.

    I see both sides quite clearly. Depending on the day, you’ll catch me siding with one or the other; some days I wish I could get my work in front of more people, some days I feel like I should buck it up and work within the current system, which isn’t entirely flawed and has significant merits. I’m still snobby enough that, if I have limited time to read, I’ll generally select the book from Ecco over the blog or the book from Lulu. (And I say that as a small press publisher, who is hoping to get his books in front of readers who prefer those Knopf or Penguin releases.)

    The publisher side of me would be furious to find whole poems from the short books my authors produce in a form that the author didn’t authorize. The avid reader side of me has been known to pull a poem or two from a book I adored and post it to my blog to illustrate some point I’m making (perhaps a point about why I loved the book), figuring that it can’t do anything but help sales.

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  39. Bev

    It really bugs me that it’s like pulling teeth to get paid for images. I can’t imagine someone calling a lawyer or accountant and expecting to get them to do something for free.

    Yeah, very good point.

    I’m quite sympathetic to your p.o.v., as you can tell, and if photography ever became more of a focus for me (no pun intended), I’d definitely consider protecting that with a more restrictive “no commercial use” provision. I still think the Creative Commons approach, with its clear distinction between commercial and non-commercial use, is better than just using standard copyright. Though as you say, there are those state-supported entities and non-profits who want to exploit you. So maybe in your case requiring everyone to ask before reproducing isn’t such a bad idea.
    conversation.

    Ross – Hi. Thanks for joining the conversation. I was worried when Matt linked to this that I’d be deluded with zealots for one side or the other, but that hasn’t happened, and I’m glad that the post and comments haven’t alienated someone like yourself, who sees good arguments on both sides. Your last paragraph is especially interesting to me, with the split between your feelings as a poetry publisher and your feelings as a reader and appreciator of poetry, wanting to share the good stuff. I would suggest that the publisher in you continue to look for ways to accomodate that latter reaction, which I think is of a piece with the generosity of spirit that allows poetry to come into being in the first place. I help publish a small online literary magazine myself, and we’ve just made the decision to encourage content-sharing through online bookmarking, adding a row of those colorful icons at the bottom of each post. If we had the capability to add an “email this” button, we’d do that, too. And if we publish anthologies through Lulu.com, I’m sure we’ll make them free for download. But of course the authors retain all rights to their works, and people who reproduce them without permission could still be liable.

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  40. I think there are two issues here. First, how do you allow borrowing/derivative works while also preserving the integrity of the original work? Under CC you can specify the manner in which attribution is made. You can specify that they link to your site (which is all I care about anyway). My website (a collection of tasteful erotica stories) specifies:

    You can create derivative works (commercial or noncommercial) inspired by this project. However, if you do, you must say, “This work is based on 99 Erotic Notions, whose website is located at this web address.” If you are just reposting/distributing the story without any modifications, you do not need to say this.

    Second issue is when it makes sense to complain about unauthorized use. Most bloggers repost without realizing that it’s not in keeping with the writer’s intent. Individuals are not the problem; it’s content republishers who do so. On the other hand, if they just republish the text verbatim, chances are it will also include attribution information too.

    It’s especially pointless to speak about derivative works with regard to poetry. In prose it’s a lot easy to establish this; for example, another person could use the same character or setting or plot device.

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  41. Sorry, one other thing.

    It’s relatively easy for a blogger to know what other bloggers are linking to him or her. But US copyright law discourages people from explicitly acknowledging inspirations. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland footnotes simply facilitated the filing of infringement lawsuits.

    I am especially wary of the tendency of people to disguise homage to originating works as a way to avoid copyright entanglements.

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  42. I’ve never charged for my work.
    Maybe I should have, but I never did.

    I don’t know that I ever will, Dave.

    You wrote:

    …all of those wanna-be authors can simply start blogs, and find readers and affirmation that way. “

    Is it so much about the love and adoration, Dave? Or is it, as I suspect, more an outflowing of something which cannot be denied. You know, that whole writing process. You’re a poet, you know what I mean.

    Also, I liked your observation about the communal writing. Several of those types of opportunities have become rather familiar around the web.

    All in all rather a thought provoking topic, and one with supreme relevance in todays world. Thanks for the think food.

    – –
    Okay,
    Father Luke

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  43. Or is it, as I suspect, more an outflowing of something which cannot be denied.
    Ideally, yes. That’s mostly the case for me – the payoff is in the writing itself. But I don’t believe it’s an either/or proposition, and I do think there are a lot of people who are more interested in being writers than in writing.

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Thanks also to Hapax Legomenon back on the 6th, whose thoughtful remarks should have elicited at least an appreciative murmur from me. Sorry about that. I especially liked the last part:

    US copyright law discourages people from explicitly acknowledging inspirations. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland footnotes simply facilitated the filing of infringement lawsuits.

    I am especially wary of the tendency of people to disguise homage to originating works as a way to avoid copyright entanglements.

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  44. …I do think there are a lot of people who are more interested in being writers than in writing.

    Ahh. yes.
    There is that.

    – –
    Be well,
    Father Luke

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  45. I am totally with you on this, Dave, even though my reasons for being totally with you are too elaborate to enumerate here. I will try to provide a shorthand version:

    1. Traditional publishing, why the obsession? If the point of art is to have people see/hear/experience it, then why would you limit yourself to a book of poetry that might sell 1,000 copies at best, at least if you are not Mary Oliver. If you can get your work out there, not only through traditional publishing, but other means as well, why wouldn’t you?

    It’s so weird to me that people want to be stingy with their work, to purposefully limit their audience, to be selective about who reads and engages with their pieces.

    (I know that’s sort of tangential to what you are saying, but I think the stronghold traditional publishing has on us is in large part what drives the paranoia about work being published in any nontraditional way and shared in an experimental/experiential way with others.)

    2. This topic runs deep for me. As a poet married to a computer programmer, and having worked with many engineering types over the course of my career, I have strong feelings on this issue, both from the writing angle and the coding angle. And I’d like to take this opportunity to flip Microsoft the bird. I should go egg Gates’ house. He lives a stone’s throw away from me. But I won’t do that because he started the Gates Foundation, which as far as I can tell, is doing nothing but good things for the world and its inhabitants.

    3. I have the no derivatives license on my site, and now I am wondering if I should take that off and go only for the attribution part with an explanation about why I am going that route just below the Creative Commons logo.

    4. As usual, you are right.

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  46. 1. Stinginess is a good way of putting it. Reminds me of the story about Jacob stealing the patriarchal blessing from Esau, which always made me wonder: why the hell couldn’t Isaac have blessed *both* of them?! Scarcity thinking is obviously deeply engrained in our culture.

    2. Yeah, I do give Gates credit for his foundation work. And I must admit I use Windows on a PC – in part because I dislike Steve Jobs even more than Bill Gates, and in part because I’m too chickenshit to go Linux.

    3. Well, if you do decide to go that route, I think the share alike, i.e. copyleft, provision is important, too. Contrary to what a couple of the commenters in this thread have suggested, that doesn’t mean you can never publish your poems in a conventionally copyrighted book, because at the end of the day you still hold the copyright and can do what you want. All the CC licensing does is say that folks can use your works in the manner you specify without having to worry about prosecution. And the Share Alike bit means that they can’t copyright a derivitive work without contacting you first.

    4. I was wrong about the clearwinged moth, as you’ll recall.

    Thanks for commenting.

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  47. And I didn’t even say a word about the collaboration aspect of the sharing and the whatnot. And you know I am all about the collaboration aspect of the sharing and the whatnot.

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  48. 1. I have been trying for more than a year and a half (which to my credit is three quarters of the time I’ve been at it writing poetry again after my ridiculously long hiatus) to cultivate a sort of politics of abundance within my very own person, at least where writing is concerned. By that I mean approaching the world, in terms of writing, as if there is always more, more, more. Not less. Not “This is it. This is all there will ever be and so I must hoard it like a crazy.”

    It’s going pretty well for me, and it’s freed me up in ways to innumerable to, well, enumerate.

    Why do we always think in terms of less? In terms of mine? In terms of get your goddamn paws off it? When did author usurp what is authored in terms of what is paramount. You reference collaborations in Japan and China, but we’ve seen many collaborations since. (I hate to keep chiming this same bell, but here I go: Coleridge and Wordsworth. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The Beat writers. My friend Matthew Rohrer and his friend Joshua Beckman. All the poets included in the book “Saints of Hysteria: a Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry.” And more. More, more, more.)

    If we truly believe our writing can change the world, that it is charged with the task of changing the world, isn’t *the change* what matters, rather than who trips the switch, making it possible for that change to occur?

    And! I would argue that it will never be a who anyway. Not in any singular sense of the word. That would be like calling a stream a drop of water: What flows through us does so with a rush, with a clear force, that is beyond the bounds of self.

    2. Steve Jobs was stupid to sell the windows technology to Bill. Dumb, dumb move. So Steve deserves what he gets. I’m not saying we could live without Gates and his empire. (Lord knows, he’s more relevant to our lives than our President.) I am just saying we can still hate him. Can’t we?

    3. I got the new license. Take a look if you want and tell me if it’s the right one.

    4. I don’t recall your being wrong about the clearwinged moth! Do you agree with me?

    5. Above, where I said “experiments/experiential,” I meant experimental/experiential. Would you be a love and edit that comment to reflect my intention? I won’t sue you for altering my work. Promise.

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  49. “But what intrigues me more is your idea of open-source, collaborative poetry. I love it when a poem dance begins on my blog — it’s always spontaneous, and always delightful.

    I don’t know what Poetry Thursday is going to evolve into — but maybe it will be something along these lines.”

    I just saw this comment from Watermark. Isn’t that prophetic, since RWP is basically PT with a foundation in collaboration.

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  50. I like the notion of open-source poetry, especially in this crazy age of digital everything. As has been pointed out, traditional methods of publishing poetry usually result in 1,000 or fewer copies being sold. Unless you’re able to get yourself published in the pages of New Yorker, or you’re John Ashbery (who I think is not a human being but an alien signal being generated and sent from Alpha Centauri), your prospects are limited. The internet is a potential boon to poetry, but perhaps too many poets are bound by books. One of my favourite authors, a young British guy named Tom McCarthy, named Finnegan’s Wake as one of his favourite books because it contained “the source code of literature”. That’s about as modern a metaphor as you can get, I think, and one of the few computery metaphors I’ve heard that don’t sound affected (outside of science fiction). If our metaphors are catching up with the times, why aren’t our habits?

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  51. Dana – Your #1 is a really healthy way to look at things, I think. I am not sure that it’s always totally helpful to think in terms of changing the world, though. I worry that that makes things seem a lot more daunting than they are… and the fact is that in some ways the world can’t and I would argue shouldn’t be saved. But that’s an argument for another time, and possibly for another blogger (Dale does this argument much better than me).

    Good find in that SB comment. I think she must’ve sensed where your true interest lay.

    palinode – Thanks for weighing in. It’s always bothered me that poets, who are supposed to excel in works of imagination, are so unimaginative when it comes to their ambitions for their work, so often focusing on prizes and publications invisible to the vast majority of the general reading public. But in their defense, a truly dedicated poet should be spending most of her free time writing, which leaves little time to discover what might be on the internet, for example, beyond a bunch of literary magazines that are striving for recognition by imitating their print counterparts as much as possible. Also, poets are bound to books because their very role is culturally conservative in some ways, and they see themselves as the guardians of attentive, absorptive reading and the literature that feeds it. Books are still the superior technology for that, however much the internet might supplement it.

    Incidentally, I would never publish in the New Yorker because they acquire lifetime rights. Authors have to ask for permission to reprint their own works. Fuck that shit.

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  52. Dave! I do not agree with this at all: “But in their defense, a truly dedicated poet should be spending most of her free time writing … ”

    I won’t go into the whys of that here, though.

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  53. Well it’s really up to the poet. Some people will want all control over their poem and all rights to it, and others will not care. But the idea of collaborative or open source poetry is an interesting one.

    There is, for example, an ongoing art project called Opening Sources that allows the public to edit an “open source poem.”

    http://openingsources.com

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  54. 72 responses! Goodness! I’ll have to come back to read them. My reading brain is just about done in for the day. I’m not prepared to give away my poetry at this time. I want to be paid for it. I’d like to make a living from my writing. And frankly, I don’t see why I shouldn’t. I suppose if a writer already has a livelihood the need to generate revenue from their writing isn’t as imperative. This is a difficult discussion. I have to read the other comments.

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