Defining “Publication” on the Internet

The following unpolished essay began life on 28 September 1996 as a posting to Japan’s Shiki List (a prominent haiku discussion list); see also this posting. It was later published on Sangeet’s Haiku and Poetry Corner. At the time, many haiku poets were grappling with which kinds of online appearances of their haiku constituted “publication,” and thus made them ineligible for submission to certain journals or contests. This is still an issue twenty years later. I’m not sure I still agree with everything I say here, but mostly I do—and at the time these comments certainly seemed to help a lot of people. Facebook and other social media sites are further changing the online landscape, and what constitutes “publication,” but some journals do specifically allow consideration of poems shared on such sites. See also commentary by Writer’s Relief on this subject.

As editor of Woodnotes, here’s how I view the question of what constitutes “publication.” With the ongoing explosion of Internet activity, the question is not as easily settled as it used to be.

        First though, let me emphasize my caveat: The whole question is an evolving one, and reaches far beyond haiku on this list and affects all sorts of literary markets (and nonliterary areas). What’s more, there are many thorny legal issues that are challenged by the very nature of the Internet. What may be legal in one country may be illegal elsewhere, yet whose law applies when the Internet crosses borders as readily as a migrating Canada goose? Some recent books I’ve edited in my professional capacity as a book editor have addressed these issues (especially Researching on the Internet published by Prima, 1995, for example), but they raise more questions than they answer. The jury, basically, is still out on this one.

        So, as far as the notion of “publication” is concerned on the Internet, here’s my policy as it relates to my considering poems for publication in Woodnotes. If a poem has been selected by an editor and “published” in print or electronic form, then I would consider that poem to be published. Printing a haiku in Woodnotes obviously makes that haiku “published.” Posting a poem to the Shiki list, although it may be read my many readers, does not constitute publication—to my mind. That’s because it’s equivalent to tacking your poem up on a notice board at a college campus or wherever. The key to this discussion (although not the only concern) is that on the Shiki list there are no editors.

        Compare the Shiki list to the editing process that is part (or rather, has been part) of the “publication” of Gary Warner’s online haiku journal, Dogwood Blossoms. I do consider that to be “publication.” And, as a bit of trivia, I have avoided the question/problem of “is or isn’t it publication” by only submitting previously published poems to Dogwood Blossoms, and, except for my few kukai entries, I’ve posted only previously published poems to Shiki (as I recall). I first did this because the question seemed to me to be in a grey area. Now I have every confidence that our poems [and their privacy] are adequately protected on the Shiki list and in the archives due to protective announcements, and the vigilance of certain individuals (thanks!).

        Speaking of the kukai, I would also consider poems posted to the kukai (even those that win) to be unpublished. Again, the kukai does not have an editor, and I consider this contest as being private anyway, like people voting on poems tacked to a notice board in a college’s English department. Of all the poems that have wandered through the Shiki list, the only one I would not consider eligible for publication in Woodnotes (as a “previously unpublished” poem) is A. C. Missias’s winning poem from last year’s Shiki contest.

        As for poems from the kukai that will presumably be posted to the Shiki home page, I don’t consider those to be published either. Nor do I consider poems posted to other home pages to be published. At least I don’t at this time! Maybe in the future I will change my mind, but that’s my feeling—and policy for Woodnotes—at this time. I have talked about this matter with other poetry editors, including Kenneth C. Liebman of the Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond and Robert Spiess, editor of Modern Haiku, and, as I recall, they are basically in agreement with me.

        On the other hand, consider these observations. I have noticed a couple of people, when listing “previous publication” in their new haiku books, listing the Shiki list and other online forums. For example, Francine Porad’s latest book, Extended Wings, acknowledges “America Online Haiku” (meaning, it would seem, the haiku discussion boards on the America Online service). She is simply acknowledging this for some reason, not labeling the appearance of her haiku thereon (again, with no editorial selection process) as “publication.” I am opposed to this practice, however, as it blurs the notion of “publication,” and I would advise against “acknowledging” such places. They do not constitute publication. It is due to their utterly democratic nature that this is so. Just because you can post haiku to the Shiki list or to rec.arts.poems or to poetry boards on CompuServe or America Online does not make that poem “published.” There is no virtue or necessity to “acknowledge” such appearances of one’s poems. It’s like acknowledging the notice board to which you might have thumb-tacked your poem. Why on earth do that and consider it a legitimate acknowledgment?

        As another example that brings up this matter, consider John Sheirer’s 1996 chapbook, The Neighbor’s Red Car. On the copyright page the book says, “Some of these poems have appeared in these print publications” (and then he lists eleven of them, including Woodnotes). Then he says “and these Internet sites” (listing seven). Some of these sites may indeed be “edited,” but even here I would not consider this to be “publication,” and, except that it’s interesting to promote haiku-sympathetic Internet sites, I would discourage the blurring of the concept of “publication” in this way. My feeling is this. While an “editor” may indeed select poems for a website, there is only one website. People are coming to the website to see the poems. The poems aren’t coming to the people (as is the case with a print publication, or even an electronic publication like Dogwood Blossoms). On the other hand, poems on the Shiki list are coming to the people—but here there is no editor. So I would say the concept of “publication” requires an editorial process and a method of distribution of the “publication” to a significant number of people.

        Now, to throw a small monkey wrench into this discussion, the Haiku Poets of Northern California’s newsletter includes many poems by members who attend each quarterly meeting. Those who choose to participate submit (on paper to the newsletter editor) one of the poems they read aloud at the meeting. These poems are collated by the editor and printed in the newsletter, regardless of quality. The newsletter includes a challenging statement that says something like “The inclusion of the preceding poems in this newsletter does not constitute publication.” I am not sure that simply printing such a statement suddenly renders the poems “unpublished.” Although there is no “editor” in this case (an “editor” who chooses poems in a selective fashion), there is distribution (in this case to a mailing list of about 90 or so people). So this falls into a grey area too, and it is further complicated (not resolved) by the cryptic “does not constitute publication” claim.

        Meanwhile, a quick aside. The Haiku Poets of Northern California and Woodnotes, which I publish independently, are no longer associated with each other. Woodnotes became an independent publication under my editorship and ownership at the beginning of 1996.

       So, the question of “publication” is being challenged by the notion of the Internet. The Internet is by nature democratic. Everyone is on a level playing field. The expert and the neophyte both have equal voices. Thus it is up to each person who reads information (including poems and commentary about them!) online to take it with a great grain of salt. Caveat emptor, as they say, even if it’s all free. We must all be vigilant in our reading of comments—find out the context or reliability of the source of whatever information we find. For example, ten people who are clueless about haiku could praise a poem posted to the Shiki list. If you just want your ego stroked, then enjoy it. But if you want to learn what really makes a haiku works as a haiku, then the opinions of ten clueless people have less weight, don’t they? You can find whatever you want on the Internet. Just because it’s there doesn’t make it “right” or reliable.

        That’s all for now. Like I said, this is grey area. I edit books frequently about computer and Internet topics (where I’m a senior editor at IDG Books Worldwide of “For Dummies” computer book fame), and in photography, graphic art, and other areas, this is a very serious problem. For our own purposes on the Shiki list, I would suggest the policy that the posting of our poems on the Shiki list, in the kukai, and to the Shiki home page does not constitute publication. On the other hand, I think if we choose to submit any such poems to an editor for conventional “publication,” it would be courteous of us to mention that we have posted our poems online. Then the editor in question can make his or her own mind up on the matter. Some contests and publications do in fact disqualify poems that have been posted online simply because they wish to take a conservative view and not allow such material because it’s in a grey area. But there’s no one answer to this. The jury’s still out on this one, like I said. For our own purposes, I think it’s a good idea for each of us to be conscientious.



Three clarifications: First, for copyright protection in the United States, as soon as something like a haiku poem or any piece of original writing is “affixed” in some way (typed into a computer, written on paper, even by hand, or recorded), then it is automatically copyrighted (even without a copyright notice). In the United States, if you register your work with the Library of Congress, you receive extra legal projection, but such registration or protection is rarely necessary for haiku. Second, to be technical, anything appearing anywhere is “published” (that is, made public), but that’s a legal notion, and typically not the sort of “publication” that most journals or contests are concerned about. It would be naïve of a journal or contest to think you’d never shown a poem to anyone, or never sent it to a friend (or friends) by email, or in other reasonable ways, including online. But a contest, if it wants its judge to consider poems anonymously, has a reasonable expectation that the poem isn’t discoverable online in any way, so as to preserve the author’s anonymity, and thus, presumably, the judge’s objectivity. But just as pinning a poem to a community notice board doesn’t render a poem “published” (the way a journal “publishes” a poem), so too does posting a poem to a private email discussion list not constitute “publication.” If such a discussion list is public (where anyone anywhere can access the archive of postings), including public Facebook pages, that’s still not like publication in a journal, since the poem hasn’t gone through an objective and independent editorial process, but may fall too much into a grey area that some journals might not like. Which leads to my third point: Any haiku journal editor can set whatever rules he or she prefers regarding the notion of “publication,” but I do find it a bit naïve for some journals to disallow any prior appearance, even on discussion lists or private sharing. Perhaps what editors don’t know won’t hurt them.

—13 December 2009