Answering Questions About Copyright

I love my readers.

Not because they buy my books. I like that.

I love my readers because they ask interesting questions. I read your emails, sit back and give an audible hmmmm. Your questions challenge me to take abstract legal concepts and apply them to real people, real books, real problems. Often with a new twist.

From time to time, I like to share some of the general questions readers send me and my responses. I have revised the letters to make them more generic and removed all identifying information.

Today, some copyright questions:

May I use images for publishing books if I put a resource and reference in the book?

Many people make the mistake of thinking that giving credit to the original illustrator, photographer, or writer is enough to protect them from a claim of copyright infringement. It’s not. If the original image or other work is subject to copyright, then assume you need to get permission to use it. There are some exceptions for what is called fair use, but the fair use exception is narrower than many people realize. I would not rely on the fair use exception without consulting with an attorney with a firm understanding of the law and the exception.

I am translating Little Women into Bantu and will be self-publishing the book. Little Women is in the public domain, and my question concerns some illustrations that were used in an edition of the book published in the 1970s. Are these illustrations also in the public domain?

Very good question. You are correct that Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is in the public domain because it was first published before 1923. However, the illustrations would be protected by their own copyright. They do not lose copyright protection by being used together with a public domain work. So, if those illustrations were created in 1923 or later, you should not use the illustrations without permission from the copyright holder, which is most likely the publisher of the 1970s edition.

I have written a novel about real people and real events in the 1920s. Some of these people were public figures, and all of them are dead. I took letters I found in my research, including some that were in books printed in the 1940s. I have rewritten the original letters in my own words and used them in my novel. Their meaning is similar but the words are different. I have also taken events and facts from old nonfiction books and used them in the novel. The facts are all public knowledge and in the public record. I have stated the sources. Can I get into legal trouble for this?

You are on the right track. Factual names, events, and information are not protected by copyright. You may use them as the basis of a novel. In fact, many bestsellers fictionalize history by using historical figures and events and creating scenes, dialogue, and a supporting cast of characters. Look at Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

In case any of the original letters are subject to copyright protection, rewriting the letters should get you around the copyright hurdles.

I’m a new author and was just wondering do I really have to wait until I get my copyright registration certificate from the U.S. Copyright Office in order to start selling my book? The wait just kills me when I just want to get my book out for people to read! Please help me!

You don’t have to wait at all. You may start selling your book right away. Yes, before your register the copyright, even if you never register the copyright. There are benefits to registering the book within three months following its first publication; you may be able to collect statutory damages and recover attorneys’ fees in an infringement case. But even if you miss that three-month window, it’s still worth registering your copyright. It creates a record of what your book looked like as of the date of registration. Plus, you cannot sue someone for infringement until you register the copyright.

I have transcribed letters written during the Civil War from my great grandfather plus added background and history to make a complete book of about 250 pages. My question concerns the ownership of my book. The letters had been in the possession of my cousins and they sent them to me for this project. Do I need some kind of release? Do we have joint ownership, or since I did all the work, do I have ownership of the transcriptions and therefore the book?

Good questions. First, let’s distinguish between the ownership of the physical letters and the ownership of the copyright in the content of the letters.

Since the physical letters have been in your cousins’ possession all these years, let’s assume they were given ownership of the printed letters along the way. For that reason, it would be preferable for you to get permission from them to use and transcribe the letters. An email will do.

As far as ownership of the contents of the letters, at this point the contents are in the public domain because the copyright has expired. Neither you nor your cousins own the contents or underlying story. Anyone may use the content and the underlying story idea.

(By the way, if the letters were from the Vietnam War, any copyright interest in the contents of the letter would belong jointly to all the heirs. Any one of you could reprint those contents without permission from the other heirs, but you would have to share any profits with all the heirs. But I am digressing.)

There is no copyright to own in the transcriptions. Merely making a copy of something is not considered a “creative” work entitled to copyright protection.

However, you own the copyright to the material you wrote for the book, the rest of the 250 pages. Your cousins do not. If they want to write their own books using the letters and historical information, then may do that, and they would own the copyright in their own writings. But not yours.

I hope this helps.

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One response to “Answering Questions About Copyright”

  1. Benjamin W says:

    For blogging, I have relied on images whose creator has released under Creative Commons license. I’ve also taken to adding a presumptive copyright lapse based on the current law and actuarial tables.

    Thanks for this blog post

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