Copyright laws protect original artistic and literary works, including poems, from unauthorized reproduction or distribution. Copyright applies to any literary work from the moment that it is fixed in a tangible form. This means that if the poem exists only in your head, you cannot claim copyright. As soon as you write it down or record it in some other manner, such as by producing an audio recording, your poem is protected by copyright.
You don’t have to register a poem with the U.S. Copyright Office to enjoy copyright protection, but registration provides you with an official record of creation and allows you to sue for damages in court. To register a copyright, send a copy of your poem to the Copyright Office with the applicable fee. As of January 2012, the fee was $65 for paper registration and $35 for online registration. Copyright protection lasts for the duration of the poet’s life plus 70 years.
You can register a collection of poems with the U.S. Copyright Office, provided you have written them all yourself. Certain conditions apply; for example, the poems must be assembled in an orderly form and the collection must have a single title that identifies it as a whole. If you publish the collection, you must deposit a copy of the poetry collection with the Copyright Office within three months from the date of publication.
Work for Hire
Section 101 of the Copyright Act states that if you write a poem as an employee – for example, if you work for a greeting card publisher – your employer owns the copyright on your work. On the other hand, if an organization commissions a poem from you as a freelance writer, you own the copyright, unless you sign an agreement granting the copyright to the commissioning organization.
In limited circumstances, the “fair use” doctrine allows others to reproduce a copyrighted poem. These exceptions include research, education, parody and commentary. Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, fair use cannot negatively impact the value of the copyrighted poem and should be for non-commercial purposes. In educational settings, teachers often copy and distribute short poems or extracts of longer poems to students; the law generally regards this as fair use and not an infringement on the poet’s copyright.