Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Letters to the Editor: Who Owns the Rights?

Dear Rich: I am a contributor to Wikisource and our task is to reproduce public domain books, documents, etc. A question came up about the definition and copyright status of newspaper's "Letters to the Editor" and what are often defined as "Open Letters." I was wondering whether you are aware of any guidance or directions on such material. Who would hold the copyright? Is copyright ceded from the author to the newspaper publisher? As a general rule -- boy we hate to start with that phrase -- letters are literary works and the author retains copyright. Unless (a) published before 1923, (b) published before 1964 but not renewed or (c) dedicated to the public, the letters are not in the public domain. 
What's unique about letters? By their nature letters must be given to someone else -- in this case, the newspaper publisher. That doesn't automatically transfer copyright ownership; it just transfers ownership of the physical letter. According to the Dear Rich Staff, it's possible that a publisher would acquire copyright under a written agreement or, in the case of an online publication, a click-to-agree agreement transferring rights. Check the fine print in the publication. Otherwise (and unless excused by fair use), the letter writer can prevent duplication or further publication.