Monday, February 6, 2023

Civil War Letters Still Copyrighted?

Ulysses S. Grant -  Virginia, June 1864
Dear Rich: I am writing a book about the Civil War. I would like to include certain quotes from letters of Civil War soldiers. The question is, when were they first published? I have two cases where they were published in book form in the 1990s, but those letters were copied from university libraries where apparently the originals are on display. According to  your book, "publication" includes "offering for public display." If I can determine that said letters have been on display at those libraries since before 1927, can I conclude that the first publication occurred before 1927, thus placing them in the public domain
You should be fine reproducing the letters. Here's some guidance to help you decide. Divide your letters into three categories:
  • Unpublished letters as of January 1, 2003. All unpublished works by individual authors who died in 1932 or earlier are in the public domain.
  • Letters published as of 2003 without the authority of the copyright owner. Same as above. "[A]n unauthorized distribution of copies or phonorecords does not constitute publication." Copyright Compendium. That's also true for unauthorized displays or performances. Therefore, unless the two publications you cite were with the authority of the author's estate, those letters are also public domain.
  • Letters published before 2003 with the authority of the copyright owner. These letters will have copyright protection until 2047 or until 70 years after the author's death, whichever is greater.

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