A person writes on paper

How to copyright a poem

By BBC Maestro

You’re rightly proud of your writing, and want to make sure that the ownership of your poetry stays with you. How do you make sure that your poems are copyrighted? 

Registering your literary work so you officially own it is pretty straightforward, although you will need to pay a fee. However, many poets feel that it’s worth a few dollars to protect their work for the future. In this article, we look at what you need to do to get your poems copyrighted.

A quick note: this article takes you through how to copyright poetry in the USA. If you’re reading this in the UK, head to the gov.uk website, which has a helpful section about British copyright laws and how to copyright your work.

How to get your poems copyrighted

To get your poem or poems copyrighted, you need to register a claim with the US Copyright Office, either online or through the mail. Part of the Library of Congress, the US Copyright Office registers copyright claims, keeps ownership information, helps the public with copyright queries, and assists Congress with any copyright issues. They’re now about to register ownership of your poem for you, and here’s what you need to do.

  1. Open up the US Copyright Office website to find links to every application form that you need.
  2. From the home screen, select Register followed by Literary Works. Enter your details and the details of the poem, and follow all the steps until the payment screen.
  3. Choose between filing online and filing by mail. If you choose the latter, the Office will send you a link to a shipping slip.

To make things even easier, the Copyright Office has created this 10-minute film about registering your copyright that walks you through all the steps you’ll need to take to file your registration. It’s worth taking time to watch it before you start the process. Before you proceed with your registration, it’s also worth checking the definition of literary work on the Copyright Office website.

‘A literary work is a work that explains, describes, or narrates a particular subject, theme, or idea through the use of narrative, descriptive, or explanatory text, rather than dialog or dramatic action. Generally, literary works are intended to be read; they are not intended to be performed before an audience.’

Does your poem meet these criteria? If you’re looking at a performance poem, you’ll need to file under the Performing Arts category instead.

How much does it cost to copyright a poem?

The fee for copyrighting a single literary work, including poems, is currently $45 for a single author, single piece of work filing. Please check the table of fees from the US Copyright Office, in the case it changes.

This cost is for online submissions only. If you want to print out the paperwork and post it off as we mentioned earlier, the cost is more. In 2023, it costs $125 to submit a paper filing.

How much does it cost to copyright 10 poems?

There is an option called Group Registration for Unpublished Works (GRUW), which allows you to register up to 10 pieces of unpublished work on a single application. According to latest table of fees from the US Copyright Office, this currently costs $85. It replaced the old Unpublished Collections registration process in 2019.

How can I copyright my writing for free?

Now here’s the curveball in this story: you automatically own the copyright for any original poem you create, whether you register and pay for it or not. So in theory, all your writing is already copyrighted and belongs to you, with not a cent changing hands. Provided you can prove that you are the poet or author, there shouldn’t be a problem. You even retain copyright if your poetry is published in a collection or magazine.

The proviso is that your work must be ‘fixed’, which simply means, written down.  In days of yore, the poet would pop their written work into an envelope and mail it to themselves, thus giving the work an official date through the postmark. These days, the digital date given to the poem by cloud storage should suffice.

In that case, why are we even discussing paying $45 to register your work as your own? After all, you own the copyright of the poem from the moment it’s written down. Registering comes down to future-proofing your poetry. One day, some unscrupulous person may choose to borrow from your work and even make money from it. If your work is unregistered, it can actually be hard to prove that it’s yours.

And speaking of making money, you might want to monetize your poem yourself one day. You’ll have more options if you have official proof that the work belongs to you.

What is fair use poetry?

The ‘Fair Use’ doctrine means that even copyrighted works can be used by anyone for the following reasons:

● Literary criticism

● News reporting

● Commentary

● Teaching

● Scholarship

● Research

If someone wants to use your work or a portion of your work for any of these reasons, they don’t need to ask you, as the copyright holder, for permission.

We hope this has given you an insight into how to copyright your poetry. Even though you don’t have to formally register your poems to legally own them, many writers still choose to protect their work by doing so.

To find out more about working as a professional poet, check out our BBC Maestro poetry course, taught by former Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. She shares her experiences of life as a poet, and covers all sorts of invaluable topics for writers who are just starting out.

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