I'm writing a non technical book and would like to add a poem in one of my chapters to emphasize an idea. Any work published before 1924 should be safe to use, but since copyright law is just full of lots of gray areas, I was wondering about the following items.

  1. Can I use something like a poem from Anton Chekhov for example? He wrote his poems before any copyright laws, so logic would dictate it's safe to use (although law and logic don't always mix).

It's not actually a poem from Chekhov, but I'm using him as an example because of the fact he didn't write in English, which gets me to my second item.

  1. Can an English translation of Chekhov's poems be protected by copyright? My book is written in English so I'll use an English translation. I was unable to identify who translated the poem so can someone claim the rights to the translation? Since it's a translation, it's not actually a new creation, right?

And finally...

  1. When large publishers print poem volumes, say some publishing company releases a book with all of Chekhov poems, how do they deal with the copyright? Can they just use the work? Do they now own some sort of rights on Chekhov's work? Does it differ if they publish the original work in Russian or if it's translated?
  • Regarding number 2, the technical term is "derivative work." Derivative works are protected by copyright. The translation would only be in the public domain if it were sufficiently old.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 6:04

1 Answer 1


The first copyright law dates from 1710, so it's not true that Chekhov wrote before any copyright laws. Any work prior to 1924 isn't necessarily safe to use (it depends on when the author died). It is in the US, but will complicate things if you publish internationally.

Unless you translate with something like Google translate, translation is definitely a creative process. This is especially true (although probably not significant legally) for something like a poem, where it is extra hard if you try to keep the original metre and rhyme scheme.

If you publish work in the public domain, you would have some claim to the typography. If the translator has done a copyright assignment to the publisher as part of the publishing agreement, they would hold the rights to the translated version.

  • OF note: Chekhov died in 1904.
    – Trish
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 21:10

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