Monday, June 24, 2019

Does Publisher of Letter Hold Copyright?

Dear Rich: I am trying to get permission to reprint a letter in a forthcoming book that will be a collection of letters. One letter has previously been published in a "Selected letters of ..." book. The copyright page lists the editor as the copyright holder. I learned that he has recently died so I approached the publisher who took a while to reply. I contacted the estate of the letter writer and they quickly granted permission. Now the publisher has replied and claimed they hold the copyright and have requested a much higher fee. Any advice on how I should proceed with this? 
We see you have a UK email address. US and UK copyright laws are similar in many (but not all) ways. Under US law, the letter writer holds the copyright (and the rule is the same in the UK). So, unless the letter writer (or estate) assigned the copyright to the editor or publisher, they (editor/publisher) don't control copyright. Our guess is that the editor/publisher acquired a compilation copyright that gives them the right to prevent someone from compiling a similar collection. If that's the case, you don't need their authorization to use the letter. One way to force the issue is to write to the publisher and ask to see proof of ownership -- a document transferring rights from the letter writer to the publisher. If they balk, it's likely they are mistaken about the rights.

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