Monday, April 29, 2019
How Can a 100 Year-old Autobiography Still Be Under Copyright?
Copyright protection typically lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. So, you would think that copyright for the autobiography would have expired in the year 2000. But the autobiography is still protected because of a quirk in the law that says if an unpublished work created before 1978 was published before January 1, 2003, its copyright would last at least until January 1, 2048, regardless of when the author died. That may have been the reason the relative edited and had the book published in 1994.
Getting (or not getting) permission. Considering the work is under copyright, you'd need permission from the copyright holder (unless you can demonstrate it's fair use). We guess that the relative who edited the work holds the copyright (or his heirs). He apparently instigated the edits and the distribution, so, hard as it might be, you would be tasked with tracking that person down. As you're probably aware "people finder" web searches are available for a fee. (BTW, we don't believe that basic book editing amounts to a separate copyright.)
If for some reason, there are no heirs and after diligently searching, you can't find anyone to ask for the autobiography rights (referred to as an "orphan work"), then you have to decide whether to proceed without permission. If you do proceed, keep a record of the steps you took to find the owner. Those records could minimize (but not eliminate) damages in the event the copyright owner steps forward. Finally, if you have success and a company wants to produce your play, you may be required under the contract to clear all rights in which case you may have to hire a researcher or clearance service.