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How (Not) to Plagiarise Poetry for Beginners

written by Harry Man

C J Allen’s recent withdrawal from the Forward Prize and his uncovering as a serial plagiarist is just one of many such instances since news broke of Christian Ward’s plagiarising of Helen Mort’s poem ‘The Deer’ earlier this year. In the the more commercial corners of the literary community, copying of this kind would be grounds for career-ending, bank-account-emptying litigation for the plagiarist. The attempts to successfully sue trade authors are so common and so numerous as to give rise to the phrase “Where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.”

Before, we get into a Monty Python style bickering and arguing about plagiarists and “‘oo killed ‘oo” and break the internet, we should look at what constitutes plagiarism and how to ensure you’re not doing it in your poem.

N.B. This guide is for the use of quotations in poetry with reference to the Copyright Act 1988 (in the UK). If you want more information on permissions for use of both poetry and prose in other forms including criticism and reviews, please check the Society of Authors’ guidelines which are freely available here.

What are the rules?

Unless (a) there are clear examples of clear, substantial and direct copying of an original work, or (b) the expression of an idea in the original work is sufficiently and clearly developed in the infringing work as to be easily identifiable, there can be no copyright infringement.

In particular the second point there of the “idea in the original work” being “sufficiently and clearly developed” is tough and expensive to prove. When asked in an interview what his plays were about, Pinter said “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.” So, good luck with that one.

Whatever your private feelings might be about obtaining permission for something, always ask. You run no risk by asking. Nobody likes don’t ask, don’t tell.

What can I use in my poem?

You can quote as much as you like from any poem that is in the public domain (i.e. out of copyright – for the UK that means the poet has been dead for more than 70 years – NB. This applies to British poets and rules occasionally vary, see ‘The person I’m quoting from is/was not a UK author’ below).

You can also quote from published poetry from poets who are still alive. Anything under 25 words is considered ‘fair use’ (also ‘fair dealing’) in ordinary circumstances.

If you are in any doubt, or if you have exceeded these 25 words by a small amount and want to be on the safe side, then ask the poet, and their publisher for permission. There may well be a fee attached.

In some cases you’ll find that the publisher is the rightsholder. Make sure that you check the rights situation with the poet before going to press or sending your work out for publication.

A poet should be flattered that you are quoting their work and it is perfectly normal to go looking for details in your contract for the sake of another writer.

What about ‘found’ poems?

If your work is a ‘found’ work, it can fall into two categories:

i. The poem is made from a ‘found’ text. i.e. writing in complete consecutive order as an extended quote.

ii. ‘Found’ poetry where material has been unrecognisably changed from the original.

If it is the former you will need permission from the copyright holder if your quote is more than about 125 words of prose. For poetry, as above, it’s usually about 25 words, but check with the rightsholder.

If your work falls under the second category, the unrecognisable, then you do not need to seek permission. It is always polite to ask. This applies to centos, melitzahs and every other type of ‘found’ form.

For other media, head over here 

How does getting permission work?

Ideally the rightsholder, or their representative will already have a permissions form. Get in touch with them. You fill out two copies of their permission form, sign them and send them to the rightsholder, who signs and returns a copy to you for your files.

You can also go through the Poetry Society, details of which are on their website.

The Society of Authors also have a permission form on the last page of their permissions guide.

Things to consider before requesting permission.
  • Where is your work going to appear?
  • How is it going to appear? Eg. Online, physical anthology, hardback, DVD of your spoken word gig, etc.
  • How many copies will be made of this poem, e.g. the print run of the magazine, will it appear online, how long for?
  • Lastly, are you quoting from material that has yet to be published? If so then visit the Society of Authors permissions guidefor further information.
  • This guide also has helpful information on what to do if the poet you’re trying to find is unreachable.
  • Is the person I’m quoting from a British author? If not, see below.
  • Typically, rightsholders will ask for a copyright line to be inserted either on the page where the text appears or in the preliminary pages of the publication.
The person I’m quoting from is/was not a UK author.

You’ll have to check copyright in the relevant territory. Most countries around the world have signed up to the Berne convention which says you’re okay if it’s 70 years after death of the author, but some have not. Check, check, check and double check here.

Will I Have to Sell My Lego Death Star to Pay a Permission Fee?

No, it’s okay, the Empire lives to fight another day…probably. The rule of thumb is that a permission should be charged at a fee that is, according to the Copyright Act ‘reasonable’ (there are some guide rates here). Very few people will charge a fearsome amount of money for a few lines of poetry because poetry doesn’t make very much money.  If someone’s charging you a substantial amount for a permission then consider whether or not you want their work to be more widely read. So, charge other people what you’d be willing to pay yourself and vice versa. Hooray for Darth Vader.

How do I protect my own work?

If your poems have gone to press and are subsequently plagiarised, you ought to have a publication record, correspondence and perhaps even original notes, all of which would illustrate that you were indeed the original author. Congratulations, by writing a poem, that poem is already your own copyright. If you are concerned that your work might be stolen before it’s printed, which is vanishingly unlikely (although did happen to – for example – Coleridge), you can protect yourself by printing off your poems, putting them into an envelope and sending them to yourself so that they are postmarked. Be sure not to open the envelope but to put it away somewhere safe. And besides, it doesn’t matter when they arrive; who doesn’t like to get poems in the post?


Harry Man was born in 1982. His poetry has appeared in New Welsh Review, Well Versed, Elbow Room, Poems in the Waiting Room, Poems in Which, and Eyewear’s Poetry Focus among other places. He works as a digital editor in South London. His first pamphlet, ‘Lift’, is forthcoming from Tall Lighthouse.

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