Voice Alpha

on reading poetry aloud for an audience

poetry readings & copyright – best practices


Thanks to Dave Bonta for sharing this link. Much of interest, and this bit in particular for those who like to or are thinking of reading other people’s poems (definitely a best practice in itself!) at poetry readings:


DESCRIPTION: Live readings are a staple of the poetry scene in many communities across the United States. Frequently, readers are poets whose programs include both their own work and selections from the work of others. On occasion, poets and other readers also create programs that consist primarily of the work of poets they admire. On some occasions, these readings may constitute criticism or commentary on the works included, but that will not always be the case. Members of the poetry community strongly believe in the value of respect for poets and their work, and they generally agree that prior consent should when possible be obtained for the inclusion of particular poems in readings.

PRINCIPLE: Under fair use, a person other than the poet may read a poem to a live audience, even in circumstances where the doctrine otherwise would not apply, if the context is (1) a reading in which the reader’s own work also is included, or (2) a reading primarily intended to celebrate the poet in question.


Readers should present quoted passages or poems as accurately as possible, allowing for the nature of the performance event.

Readers should provide conventional attribution to source material as appropriate to the nature of the performance event.

Readers should refrain from the use of particular poems in an event if they are aware that the context would be (or would have been) objectionable to the poet, unless the use is permissible as commentary or criticism.

Subject to the same qualification, readers should not repeat uses to which the poet (or a qualified successor) has objected.

In events of type (1), readers should avoid disproportionate use of the work by one or a few poets in any particular reading; in events of type (2), readers should limit their reliance on fair use to one-time or occasional performances.

Readings that include unauthorized copyrighted poetry may be recorded for archival purposes but not be made generally available without permission from the poet (or qualified successor).

Author: Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

8 thoughts on “poetry readings & copyright – best practices

  1. Important post. Thank you.

  2. I was surprised by type (2) — defintiely an expansion on what would otherwise be considered normal fair use. I can imagine how the meetings went to produce this document, the tensions between wanting to maintain control on the one hand and not wanting to discourage others from celebrating and sharing one’s work on the other. This principle is still a bit more restrictive than I would like to see, but I can imagine that it does fairly well represent the prevalent views.

  3. Very helpful. Partly because of Whale Sound and Voice Alpha, I’ve been suggesting that poets in my local group who are preparing a reading in a museum on the topic of architecture think about reading each other’s poems and/or something by another poet. I think I will read [I dwell in Possibility] by Emily Dickinson for all its architecture terms, and I think she will work in a familiarity/public domain sense, but probably we can’t use “Roof,” by Ellen Bryant Voigt, published recently in The New Yorker, because we are not primarily celebrating her. Is that right?

    • If they are reading mainly their own work, but include one poem by someone else, that would be O.K. if I understand this correctly. If they are reading just one poem apiece and that poem might be hers, it might still be O.K. but if more than one person reads her work at this event, I think the best practice would be to contact the poet for permission — which probably wouldn’t be all that hard.

  4. i think it should always be ok to read another poet’s work out loud for a live audience* as long as you say who wrote it (as opposed to claiming it for your own). i think the guidelines are wrong on this.

    *i would understand certain distinction for audio files that are available online, but the ephemeral poets-in-a-room sharing poems? that should always be ok.

    • Yeah, that puzzled me, too. I think that’s an instance where, if they’d polled more widely from the poetry community, they might’ve gotten a different result. All I can guess is that some of the older, established poets were uncomfortable with any unauthorized sharing, while the younger or more street-oriented ones they consulted with were more like us, so they compromised in the middle.

      • Or, some copyright lawyer convinced them that this was analogous to a band covering another band’s songs.

      • compromise stinks. :)

        those uncomfortable with sharing will find themselves worked right out of the contemporary poetry conversation, i think. (and hope, actually.) if the only place you can use their material is in an academic paper with proper citation they are killing the energy that feeds the art and the community.

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