I did a search through Cecil’s columns and through the board, but if I missed the a thread mentioning this, I apologize.
I have recently come across a several poems that were by “Anonymous.” I know, I know, there are a lot of poems by Anonymous. But this time, something occurred to me; who gets the royalties for these poems?
Now, one of the poems was an exception. It was by a soldier who died in World War II. In that case, the author can’t really collect royalties. But what about those where the author is unknown? Who gets the royalties?
The poem that comes to mind right away is, I believe, titled “Footprints”. With the guy or woman talking to God, about walking on the beach. A very moving poem, but it’s been merchandised to death. So who makes the money off of all of the merchandise? Does one company have rights to it or does the author just remain anonymous to the public, but collect royalties on it?
I can’t address the OP regarding poems, but I can shed some light regardings songs of dubious authorship. I have a close friend at ASCAP who tells me things.
For example, the composer and/or lyricist that appears on a song’s credit isn’t necessarily the true author of that song. Songs are sometimes ghostwritten or written under a pseudonym. (Hijack: And other times they’re stolen outright – a common practice in the “old days” when publishers would insist on a share of the writing credit or they wouldn’t publish the song. Do you really think Billy Rose wrote “Paper Moon”? But that’s a whole other topic…)
Anyway, regarding ghostwritten/pseudonym songs – and that would include “anonymous” ones too – as long as the royalty people (in this case, ASCAP) know who REALLY wrote the song (and they DO), that’s who they write the checks to.
If a song is TRULY anonymous, your guess is as good as mine.
Some items credited to “Anonymous” have a known author. I think that particular “Footsteps” poem is in that category (similar to “Desiderata”). People crediting to it as “Anonymous” are inadvertantly cheating the real author out of royalties.
Anonymous works can be copyrighted. Under current law, they’re under copyrighted for 75 years from the date of first publication or 100 years from the date of creation. If the author comes forward, they can claim copyright.
If the poems are truly in the public domain, then the author gets nothing. If the work is anonymous, the author has to step forward and claim copyright; they can then sue for payment (though it would be tough to collect on anything published before the copyright was registered).
It would be possible for the author to leave his name off the poem and still collect royalties. However, if you let a work get out as by “Anonymous,” you’re asking for infringement, since no one can know that someone holds copyright. If the publisher acts in good faith on the assumption that the work was in the public domain, the court is unlikely to punish them.