The Lowdown on Copyright for Poets and Writers

What you need to know about copyrights:

Here at Empty Mirror we often get email from folks who would like to know more about how copyright works. Here’s a brief explanation.

[Please note – I am not an attorney, and the information presented here has been gathered from a number of sources. I am talking here about copyright practices in the US & Canada. If you would like legal advice, or live somewhere else, you’ll want to look up the copyright laws & practices for your country or consult an attorney.]

Do I need to register my work with the copyright office?

No. In the United States & Canada – and many other countries – creative work is protected by copyright at the moment of its creation. Registration with the copyright office is optional.

Registration is necessary, however, if you file a lawsuit for copyright infringement against another party. In that case, your ownership of the work in question would be proven by the date of your registered copyright.

In the US, it currently costs $45 per work to register a copyright.

Is plagiarism of poems common?

For what it’s worth, in my 20+ years of experience with small-press publishing (as a poet, editor, publisher, and writer on the subject), I’ve found that poems are rarely plagiarized.

I’ve been writing & publishing poetry since the 1980s and have never registered a copyright. To my knowledge my work has never been plagiarized.

And, though I’m sure it must happen on occasion, I don’t personally know any poet whose work has been stolen.

Should I put a copyright statement on poems I submit for publication?

No, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Some poets do put a copyright statement on work that they’re submitting for publication.

But it’s not necessary, and editors consider it to look very amateurish. (Experienced poets don’t do it, so including it will mark you as a beginner.)

Since making a good impression is important, omit the copyright statement.

Editors already know your work is copyrighted, and they won’t steal your work anyway. They are in business to publish the best poetry they can find, not pretend they wrote it themselves.

Should I put a copyright statement on a book I’m publishing?

Yes, published books customarily contain a copyright statement. The statement reads something like “Copyright 2007 by John Doe.”

However, as with other forms of publication, even a book that doesn’t include a copyright statement is protected by copyright.

Will my copyright be protected when my work is published?

Again, the answer is yes. If your work is published in a magazine, anthology, website or other publication, that publication will include a copyright statement on the copyright page.

If it’s a publication with more than one author (an anthology, magazine, etc.) the copyright statement will usually say something to the effect that the entire contents of the magazine is copyrighted, and that the copyrights to individual works remain with their respective authors.

But even if they screwed up & forgot to include a copyright statement, you would still own the copyright to your work – before and after it is published. And, your work would still be protected by copyright law.

The only time you won’t own your copyright after publication is if the publisher purchases your copyright, and that’s something you must agree to. That is also very unusual.

The first time a publisher accepted a poem of mine for publication, back in 1980, it was Seventeen Magazine, and they purchased my copyright for $15. That means they own the poem now, and I can’t offer it to other publishers. I also don’t have any further right to publish the poem myself without first gaining their permission. If I ever wanted to include the poem in a collection of my poems, I’d have to get permission. However, in 27 years of publishing poems in magazines, I’ve never run across this situation again.

What about “First North American Serial Rights?”

Sometimes a publisher might ask you for “First North American Serial Rights.” That’s just means they’ll be the first North American serial (periodical) publisher to publish the poem in question. They want to know that someone else hasn’t already published your poem in another periodical.

That’s because most publishers want to present fresh work, rather than something their readers may already have read elsewhere.

If you agree to this, your copyright is not affected. You’re just agreeing to give them the right to publish it before anybody else.

What about work published on the web?

Just as work published in other forms, material published on the web – is protected by copyright.

Just as with books, copyright statements are customarily included on websites, to identify the copyright owner. The copyright statment is often found at the bottom of the webpage. (Scroll down to the bottom of this page to see how we do it.)

Webpage content – and even whole websites! – can be (but are still rarely) plagiarized. If work you’ve published on the web is plagiarized, there are measures you can take, to have that work removed from unauthorized webpages. (See the links section below for tips on dealing with plagiarism on the web.)

A little legal note

Please note: I’m not a lawyer, and this page isn’t intended as legal advice. I accept no responsibility for its use. The information found here was gathered from the US Government & Canadian Government’s copyright website and my own experience.

Please do let me know if I can be of further help!

We also have another article on this site about copyright. See How to Locate Authors and Copyright Holders.

helpful websites about copyright

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