What are the Copyright Laws for Using a Poem?

If you’re planning on using a poem in your work, you may be wondering what the copyright laws are for that. It’s not easy to find out, but luckily I’ve got you covered with this handy guide.


First, let’s talk about what it means to “use” a poem. The first time you use a line from a poem in a piece of writing, that line is considered original and protected by copyright laws. But if you quote another writer’s work verbatim, that’s not protected by copyright laws—it’s just “fair use.”

Poetry Copyright Laws

The copyright laws for using a poem are very similar to those of music and other artistic works, with a few exceptions.

A poem is generally protected by copyright only if it is fixed in a tangible medium of expression. The copyright extends to the initial fixation of the poem but does not extend to subsequent performances or reproductions that use that poem.

If you want to use a poem in your work, you must get permission from the person who owns the copyright on that poem. You can’t just take a text file and paste it into your project without getting permission from the author of the text.

You also have to make sure that you’re using the right version of the text (if there are multiple versions), and that you’re not making any alterations that could distort its meaning (for example, by changing words or punctuation).


Copyright Duration

Copyright duration is the period of time that a work is protected by copyright. The length of this period depends on the type of work and where it was created.

Copyrights are valid for the author’s lifetime and for 70 years after that. The copyright on works commissioned by an individual or organization lasts for 95 years after the work is first published.

It can survive for 120 years if it is not published. Many poems are available in the public domain. This means that anyone can use them.


Fair Use

There are laws governing “fair use” in copyright law. This means that you may use the poem in limited circumstances without seeking permission.

The issue is that the definition of “limited” is not black and white. Fair use may apply if you are criticizing or quoting the work in scholarly, research, or technical writing.

Non-profit educational uses, as well as parody of the poem, may be permitted.



For a small fee, the United States Copyright Office will determine who owns the copyright. You can then contact the owner and request permission to use the poem.

If you are unsure whether your intended use of the poem is legal, you can do this. The owner may charge you or grant you permission for free.

You can also conduct your own search in Washington, D.C., or online at the Copyright Office website.


General Copyright Term

How long is copyright protection effective? It is the author’s lifetime plus 70 years. For the sake of simplicity, a work loses its copyright on January 1st of the 71st year. James Joyce’s published works became public domain in Ireland on January 1, 2012, 71 years after his death in 1941.

In the case of a film, copyright expires 70 years after the death of the last principal director, screenwriter, dialogue writer, and composer of any music composed especially for the film.

Sound recordings, broadcasts, and the typographical arrangement of a published edition are all protected by copyright for 50 years from the date of the first fixation, broadcast, or publication.


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