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How to Find Public Domain Poems


There are many poems in the public domain. The "public domain" consists of works that are not protected by copyright or failed to meet the standards for copyright protection. Such works can be used freely, whether in readings, in print or in other creative projects. There are many sources, in print and online, of poetry in the public domain. If you come across a poem you'd like to use and are uncertain if it's in the public domain, some detective work with dates will help you determine if that poem is free of copyright protection.

Find poems in the public domain by searching collections at reputable sites such as Bartleby.com. This site includes anthologies and volumes of poetry that are in the public domain. Note that these are older poems, published before 1923, but they represent work by such masters as Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats and Walt Whitman.

Research a poem that interests you to find out its publication date. If the poem was published in the United States before 1923, it is in the public domain. Most poems published outside the United States before 1923 are in the public domain as well. In addition, if a poem was published in the United States without a copyright notice between 1923 and 1997, the work is in the public domain.

Check poems published in the United States between 1923 and 1963 for copyright information. Works published during that time period could be copyrighted for 28 years. If the copyright wasn't renewed in the 28th year, the work fell into public domain.

Check poems published in the United States after 1922 but before March 1,1989 for copyright information. If the work was published without a copyright notice, the owner of the copyright authorized the publication, and there are no legal exceptions for the omission, the work falls into public domain.

Exercise caution with poems published between 1977 and 1989 and beyond. Copyright requirements become more complicated. The website for the Copyright Information Center at Cornell University provides a chart in PDF form called "Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States" by Peter B. Hirtle. This chart offers a clear breakdown of public domain standards, a timeline of copyright changes and other vital information.

Tip
  • Even though individual poems may be in the public domain, a collection of such works may be protected by copyright. This means you cannot photocopy and use the poem from that book or other source without violating the book's copyright, although you can use the poem however you wish if you take it from a source in the public domain.
Warning
  • Just because a poem is in the public domain does not mean you should publish it under your own name. You're not required legally to cite the original author, but you could be accused of plagiarism, which means claiming ownership of words you didn't create. You can't be sued, but you could suffer professional penalties, especially in academia or publishing, as well as public embarrassment. Always research a poem if you have any doubts whether it's in the public domain. It's better to be safe than to commit copyright infringement.
About the Author

Nancy Susanna Breen has been a writer since 1976. Her articles have appeared in "Writer's Digest," "Writer's Market" and online. Breen is the former editor of "Poet's Market," an annual publishing directory, and edited craft and sewing books for the Krause and North Light Books imprints. Breen earned her Associate of Arts in communications from the College of Mount St. Joseph in 1990.

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