The Poet’s Guide to Copyright | Poems, Websites, Chapbooks

How to copyright poems

There’s a lot of confusion about copyright, poems, and publication. The truth is, it’s all much simpler than many people make it out to be, and in many ways, the law is already on poets’ side. So, in this edition of Vita Brevis’ resources for poets, we’re going to explore the ins and outs of copyright, poetry, and publishing.

Consider this a letter to emerging poets, so you can learn your rights, avoid unnecessary fees, and not fall victim to predatory third-party copyright businesses. And so you can worry more about what matters: writing poetry.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this guide:


Do You Need to Copyright Poetry? Not Really…

Did you know that every poem you’ve ever written is already protected by copyright laws? This is automatic copyright protection, and it kicks in for every poet in the United States.

The only reason you’d want to officially file copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office (USCO) is to entitle your poetry to even more protections. This is completely optional, as I’ll elaborate later.

Legal Disclaimer: You should always seek professional legal counsel before making decisions about your work. This article is purely informational.

Automatic Copyright Protection

The moment you write a poem, it’s protected. There is no need to register copyright for your poetry. You do not need to pay fees to keep it safe. And you do not need to sign up for any third-party services purporting to keep your poetry from being plagiarized.

Poets do not need to list copyright notices or copyright logos on their poetry. Once you create art, it’s safe. And if someone plagiarizes it, you’re entitled to take legal action against them.

Official Copyright Protection

Registering your poetry with the USCO is completely optional — and you can do it yourself. The only reason you should file copyright with the USCO is if you think your poetry needs extended protections. You do not need to hire anyone to do this for you. In fact, I’ll walk you through the process in a later section.

When should you copyright poetry with USCO? Only if you want extended protections, such as grounds to file a lawsuit for copyright infringement. If you need to file a lawsuit against another party, your ownership of the work is proven by the date that you registered copyright with the USCO.

Editor’s Note: Plagiarism among poets is very rare, especially if your publications are self-published or featured in smaller journals and magazines. If you have a book deal or publish to a significant audience, then you might want to consider filing poetry collections with the USCO. Seek legal counsel on this issue.

As I’ll cover in the next section, you do not need to copyright your poems individually. If you decide to file with the USCO, it’s more cost-effective to copyright a collection of poetry. Each poem within the work will be given the same protections, and you’ll only pay one fee.

Do I Need to Copyright Poems Individually?

Absolutely not. While I’m sure the USCO would appreciate the business, there’s no reason to register copyright for each of your poems individually. Remember, automatic copyright kicks in the moment you create something. Your work isn’t in danger, and no poet should have to pay fees on their art just to feel safe.

So, when should you file copyright with the USCO? Only when you’re publishing a significant collection of your poetry (chapbook, anthology, etc.), and only if you’ve decided that you would benefit from extended protections.

When you copyright a poetry collection, every poem within the collection gets protection. And you only pay the fee once. Don’t take my word for it; here’s the stipulation straight from the USCO:

Registration of an unpublished collection of compositions extends the benefits of registration to each copyrightable selection in the collection, but only the collection title appears in the Copyright Office catalogs and indexes.

U.S. Copyright Office (USCO)

How to Copyright Poems with USCO: Step-by-Step

In case you skipped to this section, please note that all of your poems are already protected by U.S. copyright law. The only reason you should consider paying to register your poetry with the USCO is if you think your work would benefit from extended protections.

Also worth noting: do not register copyright for a single poem or a small number of poems. Copyrighting a collection of poetry is much more cost-effective and much less tedious. When you file your collection of poetry or chapbook copyright with the USCO, each poem it contains is individually copyrighted too.

Requirements to File Poetry Copyright

If you want to officially register poetry with the USCO, you need to be a U.S. citizen. The registration process can be completed online using the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO) page. I’ll walk you through it, just know that it will require stable internet connection and a fee. At the time of writing, that’s $45 for a poetry collection authored by one person (you).

Here’s what the USCO says about the requirements to register a collection of poetry:

“Published collections of poetry may be registered on a single form with a single fee if all the poems are owned by the same copyright claimant. Unpublished collections of two or more poems may be submitted for registration on a single form with a single fee and deposit of one complete copy or phonorecord only if all the following conditions are met:

  1. The elements are assembled in an orderly form;
  2. The combined elements bear a single title identifying the collection as a whole;
  3. The copyright claimant in all of the elements and in the collection as a whole is the same; and
  4. All the elements are by the same author, or, if they are by different authors, at least one of the authors has contributed copyrightable authorship to each of the elements.”

How to Copyright Poems (USCO, eCO)

Time needed: 45 minutes.

  1. Visit USCO Registration Page

    Open the USCO.gov website at copyright.gov/registration and begin the registration process.

  2. Click “Literary Works”

    In the Registration Portal, click Literary Works since this category includes poetry. Then, click “Register a Literary Work.” This will bring you to the Electronic Copyright Office (eCO).

  3. Register for eCO

    Create an eCO account if you don’t have one; log in to an existing account if you do.

  4. Select “Standard Application” under “Register a Work”

    Once you’re signed in, look at the sidebar. Under “Copyright Registration” you’ll see an option to begin a “Standard Application.” Click this to begin the application.

  5. Fill Out the Application

    Go ahead and fill out all application fields. Since you’re publishing a collecting of poetry (that is, multiple poems in one volume), register your work as a volume under one copyright.

  6. Complete Payment

    Once you complete the application, you’ll be redirected to http://www.pay.gov to complete the payment.

  7. Submit Your Poetry Collection

    Now you can upload your poetry collection to your application. Read the instructions carefully, and make sure you upload the most up-to-date version of your poetry book.


Copyright for Poetry Magazine Submissions

When you’re published in a literary magazine, you still retain your poem’s copyright. The same goes for anthologies or other types of literary projects. Normally, a publisher will include a copyright statement in their publication that states all work as protected. But even if they don’t, all poets are still protected by U.S. copyright law.

It’s Possible to Sell or Sign Away Copyright

No one can ever claim copyright of your work. In fact, there’s only one way to lose your poem’s copyright to a publisher: selling or signing it away. A poetry publisher may want to buy the right to your poem to make sure that only they can feature it. If you agree to this, then you can no longer send that poem in for publication elsewhere or use it on your own website without permission from the publisher.

Don’t Include Copyright Statements in Poetry Submissions

Another thing worth mentioning: you don’t need to include copyright statements in your poetry submissions. Poets sometimes have a, “It can’t hurt mentality,” but some editors see this as a sign that you aren’t a seasoned submitter. (It’s a bit unfair, I know.)

But either way, all of your poetry is protected by law the moment you write it. Editors are aware of this, and they aren’t interested in stealing your work. With or without a notice, your rights remain the same. That goes for copyright logos too. As a rule of thumb, don’t include them in poetry submissions.

“First Serial Rights” Don’t Affect Copyright

Some poetry publications want First Serial Rights. This has nothing to do with your ownership of your poem, and it doesn’t affect copyright.

All this phrase means is that the publisher wants to be the first serial (periodical) publisher to feature your work. You’re essentially letting them know that you’ve never published this poem at any other poetry magazine, journal, blog, and so on.


Copyright for Traditional/Self-Publishing & Websites

If You Signed a Poetry Book Deal…

If your collection of poetry has been contracted for publication by a credible publisher, they will typically handle the copyright for you. (Also, congratulations.) Some less credible publishers charge poets money to publish their books. Proceed with caution if you team up with them.

When you’re taking the traditional publication route, there are a few things to consider:

  • Do not grant copyright to a publisher: Credible publishers will register your poetry book copyright in your name. If a publisher wants to be granted copyright, that’s unusual. (Especially if you’re paying the publisher.) Seek legal counsel and proceed with caution.
  • Do not stipulate poetry was “made for hire”: In some cases, a publisher may pay you to contribute to a collection or to publish a collection of your own poetry. Make sure that you never stipulate your poetry as “made for hire.” If you do this, ownership of your poetry is legally transferred to the publisher.

Before signing a book contract, make sure you consult a legal professional with publishing experience. 

If You’re Self-Publishing Poetry…

If you’re self-publishing a collection of poetry, a chapbook, an anthology, or any other sort of poetry project, your work is still automatically protected under U.S. copyright law. You do not need to register this collection with the USCO, but you can if you think your work might require extended protections.

It’s customary to include a short copyright statement in the front matter of a poetry book, but this in no way indicates if your poetry is or isn’t protected. If you wrote it, and it’s yours, it’s protected.

Copyright for Poetry Blogs and Poet Websites

What about copyright for poetry websites? It’s pretty much the same story. The moment you put a poem on your website, it’s protected. The same goes for the content on the rest of your website, poetry blog, etc.

It’s common for a website to include a footer with copyright information. Your content is still protected if this copyright notice is absent, but many people put the notice there anyway.


About Vita Brevis Press | A Resource for Poets

Vita Brevis Press is a bestselling small publisher dedicated to emerging and established poets, circulating their work in an online magazine and in physical anthologies. Vita Brevis Poetry Magazine publishes some of the best emerging poets out there, pairing their work with tonally relevant artwork.

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FAQ: Poems, Copyright, and Publication

Do I Need to Copyright Poems?

No action is required for your poem to be protected by U.S. copyright law. The moment you create a poem, you’re granted ownership and copyright over it. The only time you need to register for copyright from the USCO is if you would like extended protections.

How Long Does it Take to Copyright Literary Work

According to data by the USCO, most online copyright claims are resolved within two months. If claims require correspondence, it can take around four months. Mail copyright claims take much longer — up to a year in some cases.

Do First Serial Rights Affect Copyright?

No. First Serial Rights simply entitle the publisher to be the first periodical to publish the poem in question. Upon publication, all rights revert back to the poet. The poet’s copyright is never affected by this.

How Can I Copyright Poems for Free?

The moment you write a poem, it is automatically protected under U.S. copyright law. This is immediate and costs nothing. You don’t need to file for copyright from the USCO (which costs money) unless you want extended protective measures.

How Much Does it Cost to Copyright Poetry?

According to the USCO, electronic filing for single-author literary works cost $45. Paper filing fees for the same registration cost $125.

Should I Put Copyright Statements on my Poems?

There’s no reason to do this. Your poetry is already protected by law when you create it, and a notice is unlikely to turn away anyone who means to plagiarize it. That said, it’s unlikely that someone will plagiarize it. This is very rare — especially if you don’t have a book deal or if you aren’t publishing poetry to a significant audience.

Do I Retain Copyright If my Poem is in a Magazine or Anthology?

Yes, unless you sell your copyright. Even if your poetry is published in a collection containing other poets, and even if this publication is coming from a book press or literary magazine, you retain copyright of your work. Ideally, the publisher includes a copyright statement in their magazine or anthology stating that all works within are protected. But, even if they don’t, all poets are still protected.

Can Someone Claim Copyright of My Poetry?

The only way anyone else can claim copyright for your work is if you sign your rights away or if the other party buys your copyright from you. This will only happen if you both agree on it. In all other instances, you own your work, and your work is protected.

Can Poetry Magazines Buy My Copyright?

Yes. A poetry publication can buy the right to your poem to make sure that no other publication features it. Once this agreement is made, you can no longer send that poem in for publication elsewhere or use it on your own website without permission from the publisher.

Do I State Copyright in a Poetry Book?

Yes. It’s customary to include a short copyright statement in a book. That said, your poetry collection or chapbook is still protected by copyright even if this statement is missing.

Should I Mention Copyright in Poetry Submissions?

No. There’s no need to include copyright statements in a poetry submission, and many editors see this as a sign that you aren’t a seasoned submitter. All of your poetry is protected by law the moment you write it. Publishers are aware of this, and they aren’t interested in stealing your work. With or without a notice, your rights remain the same.

Legal Disclaimer: You should always seek professional legal counsel before making decisions about your work. This article is purely informational.

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