Saturday, 23 April 2016

Copyright Issues

A point of contention that frequently arises is a claim to copyright material. It should be remembered that facts by themselves cannot be made copyright although a biographical presentation that includes those facts can be subject to copyright law.

A rather interesting situation can occur in the matter of Letters. The writer of the letters is the copyright holder. Permission is required to publish letters written by someone else even if they were written to you. A copyright holder who is not actually the writer of the letters may never see the letters to which he or she hold the copyright.  This is because the person to whom the letters were written owns the physical items.  If the writer dies the heirs of the writer then become the new copyright holders and therefore may not have ever actually viewed the letters.

The owner may show the letters to whomsoever he or she wishes.  The owner may decide to destroy the letters or give them away or pass them to family or give or sell them to a complete stranger or donate them to a library for posterity.  The owner of the letters (unless also an heir of the estate of the writer and thus a copyright holder) cannot publish the contents of the letters without permission from the copyright holder although small portions of the letters can be legally quoted.

A reader of this rather bizarre situation will very quickly realise that if a copyright holder has never seen the letters then he or she is not in the happy position of determining whether or not the letters have ever been published, provided of course, that they have not been (a) reproduced in the actual hand of the writer or (b) attributed to the writer. Indeed the copyright holder may not even be aware that the letters exist at all!

Copyright laws vary from country to country. There are many different categories including Images, Films, Books etc.
Generally speaking if material is published on a Website the laws of the Country of the Website apply as opposed to the country of the Author if it differs.

For Information on Copyright Expiry for Individual Countries Click HERE


  1. This is interesting point. I have in my possession a letter written by my grandfather to his mother. He had several children and it was in the possession of one of his daughter's. She has subsequently died and her son gave it to me. I believe that my grandfather died intestate and my father was the eldest son. My father also died intestate and his wife left her estate to her 3 children in equal parts. Do I hold the copyright or is it shared amongst my grandfather's descendants. He has a surviving son who as closest living relative could hold the copyright.
    I have a copy of the letter on my blog but don't expect any of my family to be concerned about copyright. I published it in part to share and preserve the content should something happen to the original.
    I went to a talk about copyright at WDYTYA Live this month so I will have a look at the website recommended to check out the copyright law for the UK.

    1. A truly wonderful question Hilary! My first thought is that it is an excellent idea to publish it so that it is not lost to future generations who I am sure will be very grateful to you. I believe if a person dies intestate then there is no actual heir. You are the rightful owner of the letter since it was given to you, no question about that point. I cannot give a definitive answer regarding the copyright status since I have no legal background but I should say that you are at the very least one of the copyright holders. This is the sort of question that possibly may even challenge a lawyer.

    2. Hiliary, There is a very important point I completely overlooked when I first replied to your Question. If the letter was written more than 50 years ago the copyright would have in any case expired.

  2. I should point out that Copyright Law is sometimes very complex indeed. There are times when cases that are taken to court have the lawyers in battle with each other to defend their respective client's claim. The good thing is that there is a process of notification in respect of breach of copyright that must be strictly adhered to so that if one is challenged regarding a publication no immediate action will be taken until due process (which I believe involves at least three legal notifications set out in a particular manner) before there is even a chance that one may be taken to court!


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