by Jason Cantrell
In October 2012, a poet named Sampsa Nuotio created a site called “Google Poetics,” which posts submissions by poets from around the world, each of which is created in a nontraditional way. Each submission is derived from Google’s autocomplete suggestions, which appear when any Google user is typing in a search phrase. The suggested searches are predictions about what a user might be searching for, based on common searches performed by other users:
The suggested searches can form a unique and sometimes moving series of phrases that read like poetry: they demonstrate poetic repetition, show a particular mood or theme, and evoke an emotional reaction in the reader. A recent example from November 5, 2013 demonstrates how these poems can be very moving. The first line shows what the poet typed, and the following four lines show Google’s suggested searches:
The result reads like a poem, with the repetition of the phrase “Though I” as a way of contrasting the different lines. It has the tone of a poem, speaking about love and death, which are common themes in poetry. It even makes the reader consider the deeper meaning behind the lines, such as what the poet “disagreed with” and whether the “departure” in the last line might be an implied death. These elements are all common in poetry, but is this really a poem? Three important questions emerge when considering this style of poetry. First, can such a poem be considered a creative or literary work, when it was randomly generated with very little influence from the poet? Second, can the poet truly be considered the author of the poem, when they didn’t write it, but instead discovered it? And third, should such poems be protected under copyright, or instead be considered part of the public domain?
I would argue that this type of randomly-generated poetry still qualifies as creative work, and I would even go so far as to call it literary work. Random House defines creativity as “the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.” With poetry, a poet transcends traditional rules about language by creating works that are unlike any normal language or written prose. They use various forms of structure, rhythm, meter, and rhyme to create something that has both an artistic form and a deeper meaning behind the words. These methods, however, become their own set of “rules,” which most traditional poets use to define what makes a poem a poem. The above poem shows some of these elements: there is a rhyme between the first two lines, and there is a structure in the use of “Though I” with the words “disagree, don’t, and depart.” By generating their poems randomly, however, Google poets are simply breaking another rule, the unwritten one where most poets assume they must choose each word of a poem themselves. This type of “found poetry” is not even unique to Google; for many years, poets have created works through such methods as cutting phrases out of books or collecting headlines from newspapers, then arranging their findings into a poetic form. Similarly, Google poets may experiment with various search phrases while searching for one that will bring them interesting results. They may be collecting their phrases from an outside source, but they still have a hand in the creative process. Not just any search phrase will make a good poem, and Google poets have a creative hand in finding the ones that will be the most inspiring.
These works are also literary in nature, rather than being mere forms of gimmicky entertainment. A literary work differs from other forms of creative works in that it holds a deeper meaning, or says something about life or society. This definition, however, is not exclusive to works that were generated in a certain form. A randomly generated poem can still hold a deeper meaning, particularly if the poet put a great deal of time and effort into searching until they found just the right poem. If a Google poet rejects multiple search results because they don’t hold the meaning they are trying to express, however, then this is no different from a traditional poet searching the thesaurus and rejecting multiple synonyms until they find just the right word. In the end, the result is still a creative work that the poet made through a certain process, regardless of whether part of that process is partially random.
Despite the fact that Google poems can be seen as creative and literary works, it can still be hard to consider who is the author of a poem. The Google Poetics site doesn’t list any of the authors, and in the FAQ for the site, they explain this by saying, “Typically the same poem, or nearly the same, is sent to us by several people.” This statement points out one of the flaws in “found poetry”: it can be found by more than one person. The Google search suggestions are based on a number of factors, and they can change over time depending on the recent trends in searches by all of Google’s users. Individual results may also change if a user is logged into their Google account, since Google will customize an individual’s search results based on their history. However, despite the differences, it’s possible for more than one person, typing in the same search results on the same day, to generate the same poem. Because of this, no one person can truly be considered the “author” of that poem. This could change with works that have a greater degree of personal control. For example, if a poet collected lines from Google and then rearranged them to send the message they wish to send, then they will be creating a work that is unique and differs from the results anyone else on Google could find. The unmodified search results, however (which comprise the majority of the results on the Google Poetics site) cannot truly be credited to any one author.
This question of authorship then leads into the question of copyright. If a poem cannot be considered to have a single author, can it be covered under copyright? The US Copyright Office defines the author of a work as “the creator of the original expression in a work.” When a poem is a found work, rather than an original work, it is difficult to consider the poet to truly be the creator of that work. Furthermore, the Google Terms of Service page says that “using our Services does not give you ownership of any intellectual property rights in our Services or the content you access.” Based on this, and due to the fact that it is Google’s computer code that actually generates these poems, it seems reasonable to say that any Google poems are in fact property of Google. Despite this, the Google Poetics website marks their content as copyrighted, and it may be with regard to their web page and how it displays the work posted there. However, since another poet could easily “find” the same poem on Google and post it separately on their own web page, the content itself is not covered under copyright law; only the format that the Google Poetics site uses to display it is covered. Since the Google poems on the site are posted as screenshots of the search results, and anyone can take the same screenshot from a different computer, Google Poetics cannot claim ownership over the work, only over their individual application of it.
Copyright laws may need to be updated as we continue moving into the digital age, and more grey areas like this emerge. In the meantime, poets creating this sort of randomly-generated work should use caution, and understand that the work that they post may not be considered their own. However, Google poems offer poets a new form of creative expression that, despite the differences from the norm, still result in original work that is clearly a product of their own talent and imagination.