Ask Me Anything: Compiling Letters

Christiana Aretta asks,
How about some advice for someone compiling a journal of old letters? Licensing, copyright issues, etc.

The big question when publishing a letter is whether or not you have permission: if you wrote or received the letter, the situation is very different than if the letters aren’t yours. The best option is to simply get a written release from the writer of the letter, stating that they give you permission to publish the letter in question. Older letters, where the writer may have passed away are more difficult. The best option is to get a similar release from the executor of that person’s estate or their heirs. If you’re paying for the use of those letters, the written release should include that fact.

It’s generally a good idea to have permission from the letter’s recipient, as well, especially if the content of the letters is anything out of the ordinary. There are other issues to worry about with potentially inflammatory content, as well. By publishing letters that are damaging to a third party (neither the sender nor the recipient), you can open yourself up to questions of libel or invasion of privacy.

In terms of copyright, the writer of an unpublished letter has the right to decide where it will be first published. A release form means that you’re covered in the event of a copyright dispute down the road. There have been some legal decisions that ruled partial use of a letter in a scholarly work (such as a biography) is fair use — but, unless you’re writing a tell-all unauthorized biography, getting permission is probably a lot easier.

As usual, let me remind you that I am not a lawyer! Consulting with a legal professional (especially on how to put together your release form) is the only way to be sure that the specifics of your situation are covered.

If you’ve got a question about the business side of writing, please leave it in the comments and I’ll answer it next week!

1 Comment

  1. Mark Edward Hammock   •  

    I’m a real amature. Can/would you help me? Please?
    How do I obtain written permission of other names in my autobiography from legal executors?
    I knew many celebrities in my life and will need to get permission from all of them to include them in my autobiography.
    Maybe I shouldn’t have started with the most famous and controversial first.
    But the night mare of trying to contact Michael Jackson again has turned into a nineteen year old nightmare and yet hundreds of more pages in the saga. Especially since his death.

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