Poetry Potluck, the Public Domain, and “The Red Wheelbarrow”

The WordPress #writing201 poetry course has invited us to take a weekend break from writing, to share our favourite poems by others. I’d like to share a poem that is legal to freely reprint in full in Canada, but that would be infringing copyright in the USA and the UK. And then I’ll explain why this is important.

The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I want to share Carlos’ poem for three reasons:

  • because the poem (which I first read in my first university English class) exemplifies poetry as what Toronto’s former poet laureate Dionne Brand calls “a perfect kind of speech”;
  • because today kicks off Fair Use Week – a week devoted to raising awareness of the users’ rights in copyright law1;
  • and because the Canadian public domain lets me – as yet.
  • As a copyright scholar, I am as interested in how bloggers are sharing poems as in which poems they’re sharing. Whether #writing201 bloggers are infringing copyright by reprinting poems in full depends on where they are. For instance, here’s one blogger’s reproduction of a famous Robert Frost poem. Frost died in 1963, so his work is still copyright protected in the USA, the UK, and other jurisdictions where the term of copyright protection extends to 70 years after the author’s death. In Canada, though, the copyright has expired on Frost’s work – that is, Frost’s work is in the public domain – because Canadian copyright law only protects work until 50 years after the author’s death. So the complete works of some major authors – Frost, Hemingway (died 1961), Sylvia Plath (died 1963) – can now be freely copied and shared in full – but only in jurisdictions with shorter copyright terms, like Canada.

    Each January 1st, the Public Domain Day organization announces which canonical authors and cultural producers are entering the public domain that year. But the coming years may see fewer entries as corporate lobbyists continue to press governments for ever longer copyright terms in trade talks, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as a party to which Canada is now reported to have caved in to the demands of the USA to extend our copyright term to 70 years. Longer copyright terms don’t mean better pay for creators: major studies have shown that copyright need extend no longer than 7 to 14 years after publication (never mind after the creator’s death) to reap optimal financial rewards (Giblin 2015, Gowers 2006). All longer copyright terms mean is a diminished, impoverished public domain – our common cultural heritage – and increased control by corporations over the production and distribution of culture.

    1. Fair Use, or in Canada fair dealing, is the users’ right that allows you to make certain non-infringing uses of works that are still copyright-protected – as I did in my acrostic last week, which sampled lines from several contemporary US poets. The public domain describes works no longer protected by copyright. So fair dealing does not apply to the public domain, but both fair dealing and the public domain represent important provisions for users, rather than creators, of culture, which is why I mention Fair Use Week here.

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