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Monday, July 26, 2010

Copyright Issues

Shirley asked an interesting (and important!) question about copyright regarding a letter she wants to submit to one of my websites Past Voices:

Hi, I would appreciate a bit more information on submitting a recently unearthed letter a great uncle wrote. Many family members want a copy of this. I would also like to put it online on your site. Are there copyright issues?
OLIVE TREE ANSWER: Shirley, I'm glad you asked this question. Copyright is so important and it's an issue that is often overlooked or violated without hesitation.

I am not an expert  in copyright laws but I believe that if your uncle is deceased and the letter is in your possession, you do not have to worry about copyright. Of course if your uncle is alive, he owns the copyright and should be consulted.

Out of respect for any living people who might be mentioned in his letter you should consult them to ask their permission for it being posted. You could also remove their names and identifying or personal information.

I am sure my readers will weigh in with their thoughts on copyright. You may wish to consult the proper copyright laws. You haven't said what country you live in, so here are a few of the copyright agencies for various countries





  1. Who possesses the physical copy of the letter isn't relevant to the copyright of the content of the letter. Copyright belongs to the author, and isn't transferred automatically when the artifact itself is in the hands of another person. (For instance, when you buy a copy of a book, that doesn't mean that you have purchased the copyright to the contents of the book.)

    Now let's address the issue of the great-uncle's being dead or alive. Even if he were alive, he might not own the copyright (if he had given it or sold it to someone else). But assuming that he never chose to give the copyright or sell the copyright to someone else, his being dead only means that his copyright in the letter would pass to his heirs.

    His being dead might also have an effect on how long the copyright lasts. (It would be *very* helpful to know what year the letter was written, and what year the great-uncle died.)

    For an unpublished work (which a personal letter would probably fall under), its copyright would last 70 years after the death of the author. So if the great-uncle died more than 70 years ago, the letter is in the public domain and anyone can publish it.

    If he died less than 70 years ago, the letter is still under copyright, and you would have to seek permission from his heirs to publish it.

  2. Drew thank you for your comment! I knew that once I posted this query and my response others with far more knowledge than me would respond. Your expertise and willingness to share it is appreciated