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Understanding Copyright

Over the years, customers have asked about using copyrighted quotes or b2ap3_thumbnail_copyright.jpgpoems in funeral programs or booklets or similar materials. On the surface while it may seem harmless, there really are some legal issues surrounding using others' works, even for personal reasons such as a funeral program.

It's called the U.S. Copyright Law, which is set of exclusive rights granted to an author or creator of an original work, such as a poem, song, news article, etc. This copyright allows the author to copy and distribute his or her work as needed; however, it also protects him or her from having others do that. So, if you see a poem online that you just love, you cannot just cut and paste the entire piece to your own work.

However, there is a way around this. It's called Fair Use. As part of the U.S. Copyright Law, this doctrine allows others to use excerpts of copyrighted material, under certain circumstances, such as noncommercial use. Funeral programs fall under this category. Fair use allows individuals to copy a poem for non-financial gain if the poem is fewer than 250 words, or if longer, up to 250 words. No more than five poems or excerpts from an anthology of different poets or only three poems or excerpts per poet are allowed at one time.

How can you tell whether a poem is copyrighted?

It does not need to have a copyright symbol (©) to be protected. As long as the author can prove ownership, then it is copy-written. This goes for poems written and placed on Facebook, Pinterest, etc. So, if the poem you want has an author, you can either contact him or her for permission, or just assume it's a copyright and move on.

There are several provisions regarding the length of time a copyright is in effect:

  • Original works created on or after Jan. 1, 1978, expires after the author's death plus 70 years. The duration for anonymous pieces is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever is shorter.
  • Original works created before Jan. 1, 1978, but not published or registered by that date, are protected under the same federal copyright laws. 
  • Original works created or published before Jan. 1, 1978, have a total of 95 years of copyright protection. The copyright can be renewed as well.

So, what does all this mean? It means that poems, whether found online or in a book, are protected by copyright law. You can use excerpts for a funeral program, or ones that are fewer than 250 words. You can also obtain written consent from the author, which for many older poems, may be difficult to do. Or you can write your own poem and put all your personal feelings about your loved one on paper.


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