Friday, 30 October 2009

Is copyright killing poetry?

This post is subsequent and apropos to the two Poet-in-Residence posts immediately below. These are: Is poetry alive and kicking? and The British poetry graveyard.

The BBC's anthology The Nation's Favourite Poems does not address the issue it raises. In establishing the causes and reasons for the sad state of affairs - 91 poems in the top 100 chosen by listeners to the BBC's The Bookworm programme were by members of what we may call a dead poets society. To put it in percentage terms - In the year 1995 only 9% of the poems the British public selected as their 100 favourites were written by living writers

The copyright law in Britain
Copyright in the European Union, of which Britain is a member, lasts for the lifetime of the author and for a further 70 years from the end of the year of death. This means that if I were to live for another 21 years, a total period of 91 years would have to elapse before the copyright on my published works expired.

The above is a ridiculous state of affairs. Why? Because by the year 2100 with next to nobody reading my poems in the meantime (for the simple reason that nobody dare publish the poems for the fear of legal proceedings) I and my poetry, such as it is, will be completely forgotten.

The BBC's listeners and the schoolchildren in the Britain of 2100 will in all probability be reading and studying the same ancient poets in the current BBC's nation's favourites list. And why? For the simple reason that the work of these poets is not covered by copyright. Which of course makes it very cheap, very easy to copy and it all comes without any potential legal problems.

Potential legal problems? Yes. And there are many. Barrister Amanda L. Michaels requires no less than 10 pages of text in my Writers' & Artists' Yearbook to explain the legal minefield. The paragraph sub-headings in Michaels' article will serve give you some idea of the legal complexities involved:
British copyright law
Changes to the law since 1989
Continuing relevance of old law
Copyright protections of works
Definitions under the Act
Duration of copyright
Dealing with copyright works
Secondary infringements
Exceptions to infringement
Remedies for infringements
Design right
Moral rights

But of course there are global copyright laws, so those 10 pages with all their sub-headings and definitions are not the end of the matter. They are only the beginning. What happens when your poetry book is published in India, Bangladesh, Brazil or even the USA?

In his introduction, also in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, barrister Gavin McFarlane writes: When authors [...] take their work overseas, the complex subject of copyright can become even more daunting. McFarlane even speaks of possible $250,000 fines and prison sentences of between 5 and 10 years for copyright infringements. But that's enough. You've now got the picture.

And so Poet-in-Residence comes back to the question: Is copyright killing contemporary poetry?

In the next post I will look at the don't send your poem anywhere else 'rule'.

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