Why Is There a Rule Against Poetry Critics Quoting Poetry?

In a recent article, the poetry critic of the New York Times complained that to do poetry criticism right, it’s often necessary to quote extensively from a poem. Indeed, in the case of a short poem, it might be helpful to readers to copy the whole thing. But, the critic said, this can’t be done because it might run afoul of copyright law.

It is true that copyright law prohibits the unauthorized copying of any substantial part of someone’s poem, song, or other work.  What does “substantial” mean?  Well, in one recent case, a federal court held that rap group N.W.A.’s unauthorized sample of a two-second guitar chord was infringing. The court’s holding was clear: “Get a license, or do not sample.”

Is this a good policy?  From an economic perspective, no. Use of a small bit of someone else’s creative work to build a new creative work rarely harms the economic interests of the first copyright owner, because most “derivative” works do not directly compete with the original. In the case mentioned above, no one thought that N.W.A.’s rap song “100 Miles and Runnin’” would lure potential paying customers away from Funkadelic’s “Get Off Your Ass And Jam.” (Note: neither song is safe for work.)

Indeed, N.W.A. was probably more likely to lure new customers to Funkadelic. And if the derivative does not compete with the original, why should copyright law address it? Some argue that copyright owners have a “right” to license their work for use in derivative works, but this is a tautological argument – they have a right only if the law gives them one, and the real question is whether the law should do so in the first place.

For poems, the economic case against “sampling”—i.e., quoting—is even weaker. There’s little fear that copying parts of poems in a New York Times review will destroy the market for the poem – most poems don’t have a market, and indeed pretty much the only ones that do are those for which a market is created by a review in a major outlet like the Times. And yet, for fear of copyright liability, even institutions with the power of the Times have reason to be wary. And a lot of valuable expression is thereby chilled.

Copyright does contain an escape hatch–there is an exception for “fair use.” Unfortunately, fair use is more useful in theory than in fact. Knowing in advance what counts as fair is very difficult, and many publishers—the New York Times included, if the op-ed is to be believed—shy away from anything that a court later might deem unfair. So while an important exception to the general rule against copying, fair use is actually very hard to implement in practice.

In part this is because fair use is a standard, rather than as a set of rules. A standard is a general guide of conduct, for example, “drive carefully.” A rule is a much more specific command, as in “drive 65 miles per hour or less.” Fair use is more like the first than the second – the law sets out some factors that are relevant to whether a use is fair (such as whether the use is commercial or non-commercial, how much of the original work is used, etc.), but these are only guidelines, not rules.

Some countries do it differently. Several European nations structure fair use as a set of narrow and specific exemptions to copyright liability – for example rules allowing limited copying for scientific research, for classroom use, or for non-profit use by libraries and archives.

So what’s better, a set of fair use rules or a single fair use standard? Both have advantages, and there is a large legal literature on when, as a general matter, we ought to have rules or standards. Standards are flexible, and allow courts to consider arguments in instances that would not have been anticipated by rules. But what rules give up in flexibility, they gain in ease of application. They also let people know in advance what is allowed and what is forbidden.

Is there some way we can get the benefit of both rules and standards in how we structure fair use? We think so. We could keep the general standard but start developing rules about particular uses that are fair. For example, given the cultural importance of poetry criticism, and the fact that even reviews that quote heavily are more likely to create a market for a poem rather than destroy one, perhaps we should have a rule declaring bona fide poetry reviews immune from copyright complaints. And perhaps we should have rules about personal and non-commercial uses of copyrighted works – no liability, for example, for using someone’s song as background music for a YouTube video of your toddler dancing. No one’s going to pay for a license to make a use like this, and the video won’t cut into the market for the song.

If we collect enough examples like this, we could develop a robust set of rules that would give people guidance. And the general fair use standard would still be there to handle situations not covered by the rule. None of this suggests that fair use should invade the copyright owner’s core economic interest in profiting from her work. But copyright equally should keep clear of uses that don’t threaten authors’ livelihoods. And to strike that balance better, we need to make some rules.

Mike B

Why says there's no economic when someone quotes a poem or samples a song? If the entire business model is generating revenue through copyright traps and lawsuits then of course taking that away harms the artists!!

Tom barger

Only one issue gets attention. Being called a job killer. You will note that Cary Sherman, of the RIAA, is using the term for every situation. Don't know if he is a conservative or not, but the trade group changes tack with every prevailing breeze. It used to be "think of the children," which didn't make sense with Hilary Rosen leading the charge. Now it's think of the lost jobs.

robyn ann goldstein

There is an old somewhat Talmudic saying, "Paradise belongs to him (or her) who makes his (her) companion happy." Wow, what a real profound understanding of the real meaning of love.


You should check out the work being done at the Center for Social Media at American University. Pat Aufderheide and her colleagues had much the same thought, and have been developing "best practices" documents for various fields that often depend on fair use: documentary filmmakers, media educators, musicians. These are developed by talking with practitioners, a lot, about what they need to do, want to do, feel they can't do, then developing these into a best practices document that gets vetted by legal experts. Highly recommend.

centerforsocialmedia dot org

Rob H.

There are some great points touched on about this subject in the documentary RIP: A Remix Manifesto
freely LEGALLY available here: http://vimeo.com/8040182


I realize the main point of the article is about how far copyright protection should go, but I'm not sure we need poetry critics in the first place.


I hate an argument that says "From an economic perspective, no" and which then assumes that is the only economic perspective worth considering.

A person makes a work. Another person takes a part of that work to sell his own stuff. That stuff sells - let's say sells in material part - because of the taken stuff. Your argument is the only economic perspective is the cost to the original maker in lost sales. That's one form of transactional thinking but it's certainly not complete. You dismiss other ideas as worthless.

Take the obvious: when you sell my stuff, you take money away from me. That's a cost to me. You can say it didn't cost me sales but it did because your taking my stuff without paying takes money out of my pocket. Your sales are my sales. You say that occurs only because the law gives me that right. How is that right different from any other right? You don't say. The original arguments for copyright was to protect from adulteration and thus to encourage printing. You turn that on its head to argue that adulteration, that stealing is marketing. Go back to the origins of copyright and make that argument.

Another facet of your argument is the implicit argument that people will record music anyway. But the compensation an artist expects includes people paying for using his stuff. That compensation is then part of the licensing and other agreements the artist enters into with record companies, etc. If you say stealing is fine, then you're saying artists need to be paid more upfront or at least compensated differently and that means you're insisting the recording market redo its economics because you prefer stealing. (Oh wait, you just assert that this is marketing. Prove it. You make an assertion with no proof. Anecdote is not proof: I'm sure you can find individual songs that have driven sales of the original - because they stole so much - but prove this is true industry-wide. Bet you can't.)

I have no idea how you get from stealing to fair use. Fair use issues are important but even the article you link to quotes an entire poem and notes that standards vary from paper to paper.


robyn ann goldstein

Dear Jonathan;

OK, I want to follow your logic with a real example and see where it leads me nin the sense that I have no preconceived idea of where it will.

LEt's say, someone writes book and the book is published as all dissertations are. Every one of the facts it reports are the authors real discoveries as is the method of approach employed to sort the matter out is demonstrated and its results made obvious for the first time. The book, which is `original,' but grounded on the original work of another whose work is grounded upon the original work of others ........ So the selling of "my stuff" is not the whole issue here (since my stuff comes somewhat from that of another (who is credited for his work..... but mine has not yet been published in the usually way. (anyone can buy a copy through dissertation publishing abstracts.... The issue is of whether or not someone technically should not be able to use the publication of my research results without my permission?

So now someone takes my idea and uses it without my permission. But to publish a book that they do make money with. They use its ideas in other ways and credit me indirectly (not by name). Their book not only makes a whole lot of money, but (indirectly) markets my idea i.e., for the time being until I finish that book in which I aim to make my `original' idea obvious.. Does their money belong to me?

The only legitimate complaint that I might have is not to have been acknowledged by name or, at least, indirectly (which they already did). But then again, should they acknowledge me by name before I do acknowledge having made this discovery myself ? Now imagine several books like that (indeed a whole slew of em), including my second book that I sold the publishing rights to. I would call all the books a bit of marketing tools since none of the authors credit themselves with the original idea (except mine and a few that acknowledge my discoveries indirectly). Is this fair use? My first feelings were of course not. In hindsight, I have changed by mind and take such usage as an honor. The problem is mine to finish off my work. But since, I framed this as a question, I would like to hear your opinion. Seems to me here is such an example of how one gets from the idea of stealing to fair usage and then there is the question of where one draws the line. I say, ethically and as far as integrity is the issue, usage should be real fair as in the author should be acknowledged in some way (until the person claims their discovery which they alone have a right to do) and when the author acknowledges their own discovery, at that point, the user should acknowledge the individual person by name as in real fair usage.


robyn ann goldstein

Continuing on with this thought, that prof. of mine did acknowledge my achievement of 1974. in his new Introduction. I only learned of it today upon reviewing it for the second time around and real closely now. What this says to me is that we all make mistakes at times. The trouble is, I had to go through alot to find this one out. Life is unfair, perhaps a bit fairer when real justice is served.


Why not add a simple release option into copyright law that allows the copyright owner to give permission for someone to use the work in a derivative work such as a critical review? Reviewer asks poet to allow critic to quote poem freely in exchange for the publicity. Poet grants release, critic publishes review, poet gets attention for future creative works. Poet refuses, critic moves on, poet remains in obscurity. No arguments arise about the meaning of "fair use." Isn't this the basic model for poetry anthologies?

Frances Grimble

US Copyright law already fully allows the copyright holder to give permission to use his or her work, and to grant any and all copyrights under his or her control, and to be quite specific about the limitations and purpose of the use.

It is legal, but considered very bad publishing practice, to ask any reviewer or academic critic to speak favorably of the work. Reviews are supposed to be objective. On the other hand, it's not only legal but quite ethical in the trade to specify what material will be used, how much of it, for what purpose, how many times, and for what payment if any. Although usually no payment is charged for review quotes. It is legal, but extremely uncommon, to charge a reviewer for quoting part of the work in a review.

I could see a discussion happening where it turns out the reviewer wants to use so much material, say more than one complete poem of more than a few lines, that it looks like this is going to be a poetry column for the publication rather than a review. If I were the poet, I'd discuss and clarify this, and if it was really going to be a poetry column then I might charge.


robyn ann goldstein

Is it ok to quote my mother, Jean Goldstein. As I recall, she made accurate predictions in her book of Poetry, Feelings.

Sandy Thatcher

There is already a substantial effort under way, led by the Center for Social Media at American University, to foster the development of "best practices" that would be the equivalent of what you call "rules" here. A good overview of this effort is provided by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi in their new book titled FAIR USE RECLAIMED (Chicago, 2011), which I am reviewing for the Journal of Scholarly Publishing.

Frances Grimble

As an author and self-publisher, in on-line copyright arguments I constantly see people airily dismiss my own labor, financial investment, and sales as either insignificant, or so huge I can easily afford to forgo revenues. People who know absolutely nothing about my personal or business finances and whose estimates are invariably drastically wrong. I'm really tired of it, especially since arguments are often airily advanced to cover all writers, or huge subsets such as all fiction writers. Not all works sell equally, by a long shot, nor do they all require identical investments of labor or money. And, authors do not, by a long shot, all have the same financial needs or goals.

Also, a great deal of copyright ownership is potential. The copyright owner has the potential to create, and to sell/license the right to create, many kinds of derivative works. These include translations into foreign languages, film rights, and many others. These rights, individually or together, can amount to quite a lot financially. Someone who creates a derivative work without permission may or may not impair the sales of the original work, depending on what the derivative work is. But they tend to greatly impair the legitimate owner's sales of that kind of derivative work. Which the author can create, or sell/license the right to create, at any point in the copyright term. Just because the author does not create or license a certain kind of derivative work right away does not even remotely mean he or she never will do it.

Re quoting poetry in a review, or in scholarly criticism of the work: The reviewer or scholar is not necessarily barred from quoting entire poems. He or she may merely have to ask the author's permission. The author, of course, has the power to refuse, but typically, is willing to grant permission for such uses. That does not mean, however, that anyone who wants to do extensive quoting can get away with it legally by asserting "Authors are always flattered if you copy their work and you are actually doing them a favor by helping them market." Which is something else I hear far too often. That is just a self-serving excuse for violating copyrights.