Should I Copyright My Work?
Only if you want to restrict its circulation – and it is hard to imagine why a poet should want that. Your work is copyrighted by common law until it is published. When it is offered for sale to the public it becomes "public domain" unless it is marked "Copyright" or © with the year of publication and name of the person or entity holding the copyright. [The law has changed since Judson wrote this. It is no longer necessary to put "Copyright" or © on the published work in order for the work to be copyrighted.] It need not be registered with the Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20559 [I have not yet confirmed whether this address is still current], for an application form, which you should return with two copies and a small fee. If your work is copyrighted, others may not publish it without your permission, and you may request a fee for the privilege; if it is in the public domain, as this booklet is, and most of my books are – no permission (or fee) is required. Most magazines are copyrighted, and your work published in them is protected by the copyright for that issue (in the name of the publisher). When requests for reprinting are received by a magazine, the editor usually forwards the request to the author as a matter of courtesy. Publishers of books take out a copyright in the name of the author, but the author has usually signed a contract granting the exclusive right to publish that work to that publisher – so, in effect, the copyright is under the publisher's control.
I know it is heresy, but I doubt that copyright really serves the interest of the poet. Like patents, copyrights are intended to enable creators to profit from their work, and if what you write is likely to earn big profits, that may well concern you. Certainly it concerns commercial publishers: as I will explain later, copyrights are the mainstay of their business. But since a poet is likely to derive little income from his work at best, and none at all unless there is some public demand for his work, and since copyright limits circulation, I don't see why a poet should want it. I just pulled out of the wastebasket one of the dozens of privately printed first collections of poetry I receive each year. It bears this imposing notice:
Copyright 1976 by ____________________
All rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording, photocopying, offset, or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the author, except by reviewers who may quote brief passages to be printed in a magazine or newspaper.
The poor lady may have paid some lucky attorney to help her draw up that statement, but you may copy it for your own book if you please. It even keeps people from reading her poems over the telephone. I wonder what she hopes to protect herself from. In my view she would have done better to say, "I beg you to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means ...". That way someone might hear of her or benefit from or enjoy what she has written. Someone might like her work and hire her to write something for money. Some commercial publisher might track her down and ask to bring out her next collection – if free circulation of this book created a demand. As it is, she could hardly have tied up her manuscript more securely by locking it in her trunk.
But I warn you, my ideas on this are idiosyncratic. I don't even believe in private property. Like the Indians, I believe the earth belongs to God and we are but stewards of it. I believe patents are violations of the principle of free and open communication of scientific discovery. And I believe that literature is only cramped and corrupted by notions of private ownership: I am grateful that most of the literature we treasure was written and published before the idea of copyright was invented. Perhaps you had better ignore me and play it safe.
[I can't resist adding some comments here. On the outside chance that you become famous in your lifetime, famous enough to sell your poetry, you should retain the copyrights. Let's say, for example, that you write patriotic poems and then just happen to take a bullet for the President, your book of poems may become the new Bible for patriotic Americans everywhere. But if your poetry is in the public domain, any publisher will be able to print it and not pay you a dime.
On the other hand, if fame hasn't come a-calling by the time you reach late middle-age, it is not a bad idea to place your poems in the public domain (if that is still possible under current law – I will have to check). In the event that some admirer would like to reproduce your poetry after your death, as I have reproduced some of Judson's poetry in this anthology, copyrights will be a hindrance to that person's efforts.
At this time, a copyright on a new work lasts until the author's death plus 70 years. When the author dies, copyrights are passed to his or her heirs. Some people feel, incidentally, that these long copyright terms are unconstitutional – see the FAQ section for more information.]