Curses, Foiled Again!
by Michael R. Burch
What happens to your copyright and credit when poems go viral?
I was working on my popular page of Urdu poetry translations when during a
Google search one of my
translations showed up unexpectedly on the Reader's Digest website, in a page
Unforgettable Love Poems.
I was surprised because I haven't submitted anything to Reader's Digest in
years, and then it was a joke about a pool player who claimed he was going to
"shoot the lights out," then miscued and actually busted his table's overhead
light. But I had never submitted a poem to Reader's Digest. So how did they find my translation, and
why did they publish it without my permission?
It was very flattering—even if only as a translator—to be included in the top
ten unforgettable love poems along with Lord Byron, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, e. e. cummings and Sappho.
The article writer seemed to be a person of good taste, as she included Conrad Aiken's
"Bread and Music," which I consider to be one of the best love poems of all
time. So good for her, except for the big question mark.
Finally, I arrived at my translation ...
Last night, your memory stole into my heart—
as spring sweeps uninvited into barren gardens,
as morning breezes reinvigorate dormant deserts,
as a patient suddenly feels better, for no apparent reason …
—Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 1911-1984, Pakistan
But I was not credited with the translation. Argh! ... to be so close to
immortality, and yet remain completely invisible!
Should I hire an ambulance-chasing lawyer? What is a top 10 poem worth on the
current market? Can I retire on the proceeds?
In recent years, I've had a large number of poems go viral, by which I mean that
people start cutting and pasting them without my permission. I have found them
on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, PoemHunter, PoemSeeker, Instagram, Pinterest,
Reddit, even on a number of porn and escort websites! (It seems the pros like my
love poems.) I suppose I should be flattered, and I am, usually.
But I find a few things irksome. First, I don't like it when someone cuts and
pastes my work without crediting me as the author. Second, I don't think
for-profit organizations like Reader's Digest should be publishing
writing without obtaining permission and paying the authors. Third, I especially
don't like it when someone pretends to have written something that I wrote. That
happened to me recently, but it's relatively rare.
All in all, I consider poems going viral to be a very good thing. It means
people like my work enough to take the time to "clone" it. My goal as a writer
is to be read, and that is happening more than I could ever have expected during
the dark days when all the poets I knew were complaining that "no one reads
poetry." It turns out that porn stars and escorts like my poetry and are using
it to attract customers! Now if I could just figure out how to get credit and
get paid ...