The Slip and Slide Into the Public Domain

I love haiku. I write haiku. One of my favorite genre of haiku are error messages. I always thought they came communally from the minds of random programmers–essential to the coders’ public domain–but I discovered many of my favorites came a competition Salon ran in 1998.

Most listings of error-message haiku include no citations. To me this begs the question: can there be a fair use of haiku? Legally, anyone can take limited quotes from any text regardless of copyright status to enable scholarship, reporting, and synthesis of ideas. When the text in questions is 3 lines long, how can this work?

I have the suspicion it cannot. It is difficult to imagine a meaningful quote of haiku which did not include it entirety, and so the right to quote becomes less important than the author’s right to control full-text copying of their work*. Perhaps because the first full-text quote of a haiku sets off its slip and slide into the public domain.

Then comes the issue of authorial intent. Can such short works be protected copyright? Did the authors who submitted these haiku intend for others to use them in their code? How many people who write haiku want it to never be quoted in reviews, commentary or responses? Does it matter what their intent was when they chose to express themselves in such an easily copied medium?

Regardless of the legality or what the authors intended, these haiku are de facto in the public domain. I found over 20,000 full copies of just one of them. I am sure the better ones have been used in thousands of programmers’ projects And whether it is legal or not, and whether the original authors wanted it or not, these haiku have added culture and smiles where ERROR 404s once reigned.

*Poets stand to suffer just as much as musicians when it comes to the infinite replicability inherent to the internet. Poor quality copies rarely effect the transmission of their creations, and folks seem to be less keen to apply “property talk” to poetry. Also, there no Digital Rights Management for poems (not that it would be anymore effective for poems than it is for songs).

Inspirational Quote:

“The reason angels can fly is because they take themselves lightly.”–G.K. Chesterton, “Orthodoxy”

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