Meeting Notes 4.15.09


Meeting Held at: Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University 10:00 am – 4:30 pm EDT.

Meeting Summary

The working group of the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute’s inaugural Poetry and New Media project convened for the third time, hosted by Lewis Hyde at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The morning session was dedicated to speaking with people representing varying business perspectives within the literary community. The afternoon session included a presentation from a poet working in new-media formats and time for group discussion about the fair use doctrine and potential working group documents. Katharine Coles noted that Google had been contacted about joining this meeting and that they had declined to send a representative.

Morning Conversations and New-Media Poetry Presentation

The morning conversations opened with Jill Kneerim’s observation that the new-media landscape is currently “chaotic” and that poets, publishers, and others are “scrambling to harness new-media” opportunities. Kneerim noted that if poets are looking to new-media opportunities for income, they most likely will be disappointed. On the other hand, if poets look to new-media opportunities for exposure, they might find it. Still, they should be aware of risks that may come with such exposure, in particular that wide and free access to a given poem may negatively affect a poet’s ability to make money from that poem in the future. Several people noted the desirability of exposure and felt that the possible new readership opportunities that exposure might bring outweighed the potential that a given poem might lose its economic value. However, group members were concerned about the possibility that a work’s integrity might be undermined if it appeared widely in electronic form. Rick Stevens noted that it is possible to use commercial software to limit a user’s ability to alter a poem.

Kneerim and McInerney discussed various types of author agreements and how they might be affected by new media. Often an author will have an overarching deal with a publisher that focuses primarily on print and covers new-media opportunities under subsidiary rights. Sometimes an author may stipulate that a given item will be negotiated separately. It was noted that electronic distribution eliminates most distribution costs, so author income percentages should be considered in relation to an item’s actual distribution cost rather than traditional formulas. Though some costs will be lower, publishers, and by extension authors, will still have to recoup and profit from their initial investment. Another advantage of new media is that the economic model of e-distribution may allow for a book’s sales to have a “long tail” and gain audience slowly, and that this could bring a democratization of the art form. There was consensus that much is still unknown about what effects distributing literature on new-media platforms will have, and the presenters suggested that poets and their representatives should ask questions and actively involve themselves in thinking about new ways of doing business under the new-media model. The group agreed that poets should be open to noncommercial, no-derivative licenses for the broad use of their poems. The group also discussed various derivative uses for poems, such as in music.

Jan Constantine of the Authors Guild gave a quick review of the events leading up to the Google settlement, and the group discussed various aspects of the settlement, including the initial opt-out stage for authors, the number of options available to authors in relation to handling of their work, what resources Google is putting into this project and into alerting authors about the settlement, who was and was not included in the settlement talks, the creation of the Book Rights Registry, orphan works, inserts (such as poems included in anthologies), and remuneration possibilities for publishers, authors and rights holders. Constantine noted that the parties to the lawsuit believe that 95% of the books that will be in the Google Book Search database will be out-of-print books. She also noted that poems are being excluded from preview by default because a preview of a poetry book would often provide full poems for readers to view rather than snippets. If poets would like previews of their poetry books to be available, they will have to opt-in to this possibility.

Jeffrey Lependorf told the group that the overwhelming majority of poetry books are produced by small presses, with small press runs, often resulting in small audiences. He and the group agreed that new media provide excellent opportunities to change this. He noted the Google settlement might eventually work well for small persses because it is tractable, provides a new way for people to discover poets and poems they enjoy, and could lead to the purchasing of more books. He said that small presses are not necessarily taking full advantage of new-media opportunities, but that they might embrace new media sooner than big publishers because they have to assume less risk in doing so.

The group asked Lependorf and poet Nick Montfort whether poetry was evolving as a result of poets working directly in new media and about the extent to which some works are created strictly for new-media outlets. It was noted that a significant transition has occurred in that books that have gone out of print are often now available directly from computers. Some poems exist simultaneously on the page and on new media, while others live exclusively in cyberspace. These poems, which often take advantage of multiple media, tend to be sensory, interactive, and/or networked. Others still are computational, in the sense that the poems exist not at the level of the interface but underneath, in the code. Montfort also noted that it is easier to have an ongoing conversation about poems if they are online. Perhaps in part because of this new ease of conversation, some new-media poets are more interested in the concept of authorship/recognition than in the concept of ownership. Lependorf noted that a powerful tool for online journals is the hyperlink, but he also observed that our ideas about when a poem is “done” and what a journal is online are complicated by this tool. He told the group that journals are making available on the web additional materials that don’t fit onto the physical pages of the journal, and he noted that the Internet allows for poems to be experienced visually and aurally and may provide powerful tools for translation. Nick Montfort then gave a reading and presented an overview of his own new-media poetry.

Working Group Discussion

During the afternoon, Lewis Hyde gave a brief review of the history of the fair use doctrine, with particular attention paid to the preamble to section 107 of the statute, which specifies the uses that are generally considered to be fair, and to the four factors to be considered in determining whether something is a fair use. Hyde noted that the publishers’ guidelines, included in the historical notes of the fair use statute, have become de facto guidelines, even though they were produced by the content owners over the objections of professional organizations in higher education and even though they have no legal standing. Attorneys in the group noted that court cases regarding fair use copying for educational purposes have focused on commercial organizations and that it is unclear what might happen if there were to be a case involving an educational institution. However, many educational institutions follow the publishers’ guidelines, possibly because of concerns about litigation. Absent cases providing legal authority on this matter, practice communities (such as the poetry community) may want to articulate community norms and best practices in order to give their own practices some authority and standing in the event of litigation. K. Coles offered the Center for Social Media’s documentary filmmakers’ best practices as an example of a community working together to articulate their art form’s norms and best practices.

The last two hours of the meeting were devoted to group discussion. The working group turned its attention to the draft project values document, discussing various revisions and deciding to take one last look at it by e-mail prior to its being posted on the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute’s website. Then the discussion turned to an outline for a working group recommendations document. The group decided to organize the document around the primary value of access and to create sections identifying such barriers to access as permissions, funding, and geography, and to make recommendations about tools for creating more access, including fair use, flexible licenses, author estate planning, and so on. The group continued to express its concern that any document should encourage poets, readers, and users of poetry to maintain the integrity of poems, to attend to copyright, and to understand the differences between attribution and permission and between authorship and ownership. In particular, the discussion continued to return to diversity and to how diversity in the art form and its audiences might be cultivated and increased through broad access.

The group concluded by discussing ways of gaining feedback about these issues from the poetry community, deciding, as a start, to follow up on a recent invitation to send questions to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses list-serve.


The Poetry and New Media project’s working document reports and meeting summaries reflect a process to collect information, consider ideas and develop recommendations in preparation of a final report. Because the new media environment is ever-changing, some of the assumptions discussed early on became outdated or were seen as no longer relevant as process progressed and new information was considered. Thus, the materials presented here must be considered working, in-process documents which are provided only so that those interested in understanding the approach and interim discussions of the working groups can have a look inside those deliberations. As you read them, please consider them to represent an evolution of a free-flowing conversation about a timely topic and not as substitutes for the final report and the recommendations it contains.

The various views presented herein are not necessarily the views of the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute or the Poetry Foundation. We look forward to sharing the working group’s final report in early 2010.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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