Since 1963, the author of a poem has automatic copyright in the poem under federal law. The author does not have to take any formal legal steps to claim the copyright. This copyright protection means the author can prevent others from using, changing, or reproducing the poem. The author owns the exclusive right to, among other things, reproduce, alter, distribute or perform the poem. The copyright is automatic, but enforcing it can be much more difficult.
Federal laws in the United States have always recognized that creative works require legal protection because, without that legal protection, artists and authors will lose the incentive to create any new original works. The general purpose of a copyright is to protect the creative control of the original author. This control lasts for the full life of the author plus 70 additional years under federal law, as of January 2012.
Before 1963, a copyright did not exist unless the author filed official copyright paperwork with a branch of the federal government known as the U.S. Copyright Office. In 1963, that changed and authors were no longer required to file any paperwork with the government. Between 1963 and 1989, federal law required the author to claim a copyright by including on each reproduction of the copyrighted material a formal notation indicating the author was claiming a copyright. Since 1989, federal law creates an automatic copyright in favor of the author of every creative expression, including poems.
Claiming a Copyright
In 1989, federal law changed so that copyrights became an inherent part of every creative work. Thus, an author has a copyright in a poem even if he never files a single document with the federal government or includes the copyright symbol, or any other claim of copyright, on his creative works.
Enforcing a Copyright
The author of a poem has the right to enforce the copyright against anybody who reproduces, alters, distributes, or performs the poem without the author's permission. This is true even if the violator does not make any money in connection with the poem. To enforce a copyright requires filing a lawsuit against the person who has violated the copyright. However, before an author can file a lawsuit, he must register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office. The purpose of a lawsuit can be to enjoin the violator from further violating the copyright and allow the author to collect money damages caused by the violation.