Grammy's got rights, no?
April 28, 2010 9:56 AM   Subscribe

(Copyright filter) I'm about to publish my long-dead grandmother's privately-circulated-only memoirs on lulu. How does copyright work in a case like this?

She died in the 50s; we've had her typed ms converted to a .txt file and I'm doing the full-on InDesign thing with a nice cover and some photos, an intro, etc. So, who should be named in the copyright notice? Can I even copyright her text? Thnx!
posted by dpcoffin to Law & Government (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My resource for figuring out copyright terms for this kind of thing is always Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States.
posted by enn at 9:58 AM on April 28, 2010

It was copyrighted when your grandmother wrote it. The copyright will expire 70 years after her death, which means that for the moment you need the copyright holder's permission to publish it. Presumably that would be whoever inherited your grandmother's estate.

Practically speaking, if your family isn't going to sue you, you're probably good. Might be worth one of those free half hour consults with a lawyer to be sure.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 10:19 AM on April 28, 2010

(Assuming this is in the US): The general copyright term on unpublished works by private individuals is the life of the author + 70 years. Since your grandmother died in the 1950s, the copyright will expire at some point in the 2020s.

As for the copyright notice - it isn't necessary to have one to get protection under US copyright law. However, there's no harm in adding one. The copyright would go to whomever got legal ownership of those rights under your grandmother's will. If she did not specifically direct who got those rights, then they passed to whomever received her residual estate (i.e. who got everything left over after all the specifically mentioned stuff was passed out). Be careful, as this may not be a family member - it could be a charity or religious institution. Also, it is possible that the rights may be spread among several family members.

If you are expecting any kind of revenue stream from this, it will be worth your while to conduct some research and consult with a copyright and/or estates lawyer.
posted by thewittyname at 10:27 AM on April 28, 2010

This isn't legal advice. You should consult a competent copyright attorney in your jurisdiction for advice.

You're actually in the best position if the work was never published or registered with the Copyright Office, which seems likely from what you've said. In that case, the copyright would be automatic and last for 70 years after her death, which means it should be copyrighted through 2020 - 2030 (you didn't say when in the 50s she died, exactly).

More complex is the issue of who owns the copyright now. Ownership of the copyright would have passed to her heirs upon her death. If the copyright wasn't listed specifically in the will, then look to a residuary clause (i.e. "everything else goes to X"). If there was no will, then things get even more complicated: her heirs would each own an interest in the copyright. Note that if her husband survived her, then you might have to look to his heirs, which might be a different group if he remarried. Tricky, eh?
posted by jedicus at 10:29 AM on April 28, 2010

Thanks, all; very helpful.
posted by dpcoffin at 10:59 AM on April 28, 2010

Actually, copyright terms get really nuanced if the work was created before Jan. 1, 1978, and may involve the need to renew copyrights. Take a look at this publication by the U.S. gov: (pdf). It's easy to misunderstand what is going on in it, so you ought to contact a lawyer if you're really concerned about the status of the copyright on it.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:20 AM on April 28, 2010

Granny ain't gonna sue you. A print-on-demand legacy memoir will probably be welcomed (or ignored), unless you have a sibling or cousin with a personal grudge against you (or if Hollywood decides to make a movie version).

There is always a Creative Commons License option.
posted by ovvl at 2:47 PM on April 28, 2010

ovvl... it seems to me that you need to own the copyright before you can grant a Creative Commons License to use it. And I agree with everyone who says it belongs to the grandmother's heirs, whoever that might be.
posted by 14580 at 2:54 PM on April 28, 2010

I am not the OP's attorney. This is not legal advice.

This bit from the PDF jabberjaw linked to seems to be the most relevant, if the OP is in the United States:
Works in existence but not published or copyrighted on January 1, 1978: Works that had been created before the current law came into effect but had neither been published nor registered for copyright before January 1, 1978, automatically are given federal copyright protection. The duration of copyright in these works will generally be computed in the same way as for new works: the life-plus-70 or 95/120-year terms will apply to them as well. However, all works in this category are guaranteed at least 25 years of statutory protection. The law specifies that in no case will copyright in a work of this sort expire before December 31, 2002, and if the work is published before that date the term will extend another 45 years, through the end of 2047.
However, the definition of "published" can be tricky, so the memoir may or may not qualify under this provision of the law.

And seconding what jedicus said re ownership.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 6:41 PM on April 28, 2010

Ignore the Creative Commons License read herring. As much as I like CC it has absolutely nothing to do with figuring out if you now have permission to publish these letters.

Contact a copyright attorney. It will not take much of their time (your money) and you'll get the right answer.
posted by Ookseer at 10:05 PM on April 28, 2010

IANAL, but any edits you make to the text are copyright by you. This means that even if your grandmother's copyright has expired, yours will still be valid. In theory someone else could just publish the unedited original - but they won't have access to that, will they?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:16 AM on April 29, 2010

« Older What's the best place to have a picnic in Golden...   |   What's the underground arts scene like in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.