The Downsides of Rigid Copyright

Earlier this year, I was working on a science fiction novel, and I wanted to have a character quote a well-known semi-contemporary poet — except, since this is SF, the poet would have been a historical figure in the future I was writing. I wasn’t going to steal the lines, or pass them off as my own. The whole point was to acknowledge that the poet in question wrote the lines, and to show something about the protagonist by quoting the poet.

When the book comes out, however, you won’t find those lines. Why not? Because, under current copyright law and in the current litigious climate, I would have had to pay a not insignificant sum for each line I quoted, even with full attribution to the poet. I wasn’t passing his work off as mine. I wasn’t trying to make money off using a few lines of another writer’s work. I wanted to show something about the protagonist and perhaps even encourage a few readers to look up other work by that poet.

It won’t happen, partly because of the permission fees required, and partly because I don’t feel that publishing a line or two of poetry in the middle of a novel, verse fully attributed to the author, should be considered a violation of copyright law.

At the same time, if I were back teaching college English, I could have legally copied the entire poem and passed a copy out to the entire class without breaking the law. In both cases, the motives would be similar, to expose readers to something new, and, additionally, in the case of the novel, to show the impact of that verse upon a character.

In another case I came across several years ago, a contemporary composer wanted to set the poem of a relatively recently deceased poet to music to create an art song. The lyrics would have been credited to the poet, and half of any royalties or residuals would have gone to the estate or the heirs. The composer — a classical composer, by the way — requested permission and was denied. Such denial was certainly within the rights of the heirs who owned the copyright, but it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me… or to society. The art song that would have been created would certainly have exposed more listeners to the poet, and it definitely wouldn’t have hurt the heirs financially. In the meantime, none of the poet’s work has been set to music, and the poet, once well-known, is slowly fading into obscurity. In a century or so, of course, the work will revert to the public domain, but will there be a composer knowledgeable enough to even find the work by then? Or who will have the interest?

I once published verse in small magazines, none of which survived, which may say something about both my verse and the magazines, except other better-known poets were also published there. But who will ever search out the work that appeared there? Could anyone even find it? Yet songs often perpetuate verse far longer than the written word alone.

The whole idea of copyright is to protect the intellectual property of the creator, but often, as in the cases I’ve cited, the application works the other way. For poetry in particular, the intellectual property of the creator is hardly preserved, and often in effect destroyed, if no one knows that it exists, which is the case if the work is relegated to a dusty anthology or small volume printed once or a few times and then forgotten. Even once-famous poets are sliding into obscurity, in part, I believe, because they are taught less and less and because they do not appear in other forms or venues. My work certainly doesn’t sell like Harry Potter, but I can guarantee that any line of verse that appears in one of my books — or those of many other F&SF genre writers — will reach far more readers than would be the case except for all but the most famous of poets.

I certainly would have been more than pleased if, say, a character in The DaVinci Code happened to quote a line from one of my books and named me as the author — and I definitely wouldn’t have demanded payment for a few words.