The HyperTexts

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 titled 10 Unforgettable Love Poems.

I was surprised because I haven't submitted anything to Reader's Digest in twenty 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 translatorto 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 ...

The HyperTexts