Copyright and Making Art Out of Poems

Fun fact: Your poems are automatically copyrighted as soon as you write them down, whether it’s on the back of an envelope, in that fancy cotton-paper notebook, or in your notes app. The words belong to you (for your lifetime plus 70 years) and, legally, unless you give someone the right to publish them (such as submitting them to a magazine, which has its own set of fiddly copyright details), you could sic a lawyer on anyone who tries. 

Including me, if I did a lettering piece using your poem and you didn’t see it as fan art but as a way of publishing it, or if I did something ridiculously rude like trying to sell it for my own benefit. If I wanted to make visual art out of your words, I’d get permission! I’d ask for your explicit consent, even if it were just hobby art for my own feed.

(Full disclosure: I didn’t do this with any of the art that I’m using as an example!

First, on the left, is a piece based on a poem by former Tumblr user boywitch, on their poetry account boywrite. When I first made it, I sent it to them and they seemed to enjoy it very much as fan art–which made my day–so hopefully it’s fine here as an example of poetry in calligraphy. If not–boywitch, if you’re somehow reading this, let me know if you want it taken down! And, um, excuse all the filters.

Second, on the right, is this piece that I did of a very famous tweet by twitter user @dril. (Yes, tweets can be copyrighted! Not all of them are automatically, but this one definitely is. They’re not all archived in the Library of Congress anymore, but it’s something.) As it states, it is not a joke, it is actually very serious art. I have posted it before, and it never got famous enough that dril even saw it, as far as I know. Hopefully he would enjoy it… maybe one day I’ll do a much fancier version. With, like, skill.)

You know this already but I’ve gotta remind you: I’m not a lawyer. I’m not. These are all opinions based on my personal understanding of the law and various cases I’ve read about.

That said: I would not argue that lettering of a poem–or any entire work–is transformative use, because it doesn’t “transform” the part of the work that really matters. Your words are still the important part. If you posted a screenshot of them in five different fonts, would that be transformative? No, because the meaning is in the words. The physical letters are not the important part of the art.

Similarly, I would argue that lettering a single quote–i.e., a phrase or sentence–from a much longer work is fair use because I would be using such a small percentage that the “meaning” of the larger work would not be transferred. You would still have to go to the book or song or album–and therefore benefit the original author–to get the full impact of the art. My lettering would just point you to it. But authors and corporations and their lawyers notoriously have varying ideas of what is fair, what is use, and what is art.

That said, the other example of my work that I’m going to use here is my Fall Out Book of Kells, which is a book I made in which I transcribed the lyrics to Fall Out Boy’s Folie a Deux in the style of the Book of Kells (to make it a “hymnal”). It took hours of work and I’m very proud of it. The band doesn’t know about it, because none of the posts I’ve ever made about it have gotten popular, and the meet-and-greet at which I was going to give them a copy didn’t happen. That I would call transformative because not only did it make a huge change to the source material, it also carries a different meaning. In the context of my work, the lyrics aren’t the point; the point is that this was my prayerbook, and that music is still as holy as it was when scriptoria existed.

But if boywitch or dril or Fall Out Boy and their lawyers wanted to tell me to take down my posts about it, they could.

That’s why I would simply stick to public domain works and words, and free myself up from legal worries to focus on the letterforms, the composition–the drawing!

Okay, What’s in the Public Domain?

Once again: I’m not a lawyer. Nothing I say here is legal advice. If you want to know more, you need to talk to a lawyer.

The reason you need a whole lawyer for this is that copyright law history is completely insane and has only gotten more complex as time has gone on (and as corporations have gotten involved). I really did write a few paragraphs trying to “explain like I’m 5” but it’s just outside the scope of this blog.

However, if discussions of the minutiae of the law do get you going, great! Go check out the Center for the Study of Public Domain and come back and explain it to us in the comments. (Also if I’m wrong about any of this, please correct me!)

What we want to know is what’s actually in the public domain? What can I work with? Basically: What’s in the toybox?

Good news: New stuff gets added every year now! Public Domain Day in the US is January 1. Every year when you wake up after New Years Eve, you can go get ideas for your next project!

But that’s like a million years months from now, so where can I go right now? And where can I go that has *just poetry*, because my calligraphy pen is really itching!

Here You Go

Public Domain Poetry

This is the first result if you google “public domain poetry”, because they did a great job with SEO. The site isn’t exactly Web whatever-point-0-we’re-up-to-now, but it has almost 40,000 poems! And you can sort and search by author–by surname or first name, which means you could do, like, a whole zine of poems just written by Emilies. You can also submit poems from more obscure authors when they go out of copyright, so if your great granddad was a wordsmith, you can put him online and make him finally famous! Plus this site links to an eBay store of embroideries, which is super cool.


You know good ol’ Project Gutenberg, the oldest etext project on the entire internet. It was founded back in 1971! People literally hand-typed all these free out-of-copyright works in just so we could have them for free online! 

Okay, sorry. I had a moment.

On Gutenberg, you can sort by subject (“bookshelves”). And since humans have been writing poetry since we learned to write, there’s obviously a poetry shelf. It’s got several volumes of “The World’s Best Poetry”, which are sorted by subject. It’s got your Epics, your Romantics, your Metaphysicals, your Modern poets. Old English and other translations! It’s got multiple Beowulves!

All right, so it’s no 40,000 and your great granddad’s poems, but you can download all these collections in basically any format, so you can have them on your phone or ereader wherever! Plus all the other books they have… Worth it.


Librivox is another amazing free internet resource. Do you prefer being read to, to reading things yourself? Do you have vision difficulties or focus problems? Do you just have other stuff to do and no time? Let the volunteer audiobookologists at Librivox read public domain books to you!

Just in the poetry section here, they have over 13,000 books! That includes books in other languages, too. That’s basically infinite poems! And there are definitely going to be doubles of popular books, because volunteers can choose what they want to read (and there’s a not-insignificant amount of “well version 3 wasn’t good, I’m going to make version 6” going on).

Having poetry read aloud is a completely different experience to reading it on a page. I never really got why everyone loves Shakespeare until I saw it acted, and heard the rhythm and the sibilance–and the jokes! It even helps you to write poetry if you read it aloud at someone point during revision; those same qualities come through where they just don’t in typography.

Last Word

If you ever come across a poem that isn’t on any of these lists, or you’re not sure if it was published before 1923, or you’re otherwise just not sure about its copyright status, CHECK. It’s not easy. You can try this search engine for registered copyrights; that page has a pdf link to help you check on works published before 1978. This chart can also give you some guidelines.

But in my (notalawyer) opinion, the nicest thing you could do would be to ask permission from the author, if they are able to be contacted. You can do this for works that are very much within copyright, too! Like those of your internet favs! In my experience, if you explain that you’re doing this as fan art (and that publishing on Instagram doesn’t gain you anything but clout) they’ll be flattered that you think so highly of their work that you wanted to make it even more beautiful.

If you’d like a poem done in pretty letters–calligraphy, typography, hippie poster style, whatever!–talk to me! I’d love to do a public domain poem for you; they make great gifts for occasions like graduations or weddings. Or I can take one of your own poems and make it as visually stunning as it already is verbally!

Do you have any thoughts on copyright law? What public domain work can you see in beautiful calligraphy? Let’s talk in the comments!

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