Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How do I make sense of copyrights?

I went to look up an unpublished manuscript on a recent trip to the Church History Library (CHL). It was the new one, but I'll get to that on another post. The real purpose of my post is copyrights. I wanted a copy of an unpublished manuscript titled "The Tennessee Massacre" by Georgia Roberts Livingston Mowry, the daughter of B. H. Roberts. When she finished her mission in 1951 (the manuscript is undated but based on context it was about then) she visited Lewis and Hickman County in Tennessee. One of the Elders serving in her mission was Ulner Morrow. He agreed to show her around Cane Creek and other places her father would have been to. They spoke with several people and she typed up a version of the Massacre based on her father's autobiography, often word for word. But there was enough new stuff I thought it would be nice to have a copy.

But no! The archivist said it was still under copyright. Copyright? But it isn't a published document. Well, that doesn't really matter. The writer still owns it and she would have to give permission for it to be copied. OK, but the writer is dead. She died in 1970. Well, that doesn't matter. Copyrights survive even after the writer is dead.

So I can't get permission to copy a manuscript from the writer because she is dead and I can't buy a copy because it was never published. Just what is the copyright law trying to protect. The dead writers right to earn a living off of materials she never published? Somehow the CHL got a copy. Someone out there who understands this please help me understand.

9 comments:

Amy said...

Good luck. Perhaps you could track down her children and get a copy from them.

A DesNews article (1952) mentions that Mrs Georgia Livingston was active in the DAR. An obit for her sister Luna Roberts in the Davis County Clipper (1960) places Mrs Georgia Mowry in SLC.

Rootsweb lists her as Georgiana b. 11 Aug 1897 in Centerville, Davis, Utah, with husbands Joseph Livingston (md 1930) and George Mowry (md 1958). New Family Search doesn't list any children, but does mention that she was a twin to Joanna Roberts Naylor (husband Henry Naylor), also with no children listed.

I can't find obituaries for any of those individuals. Disappointing, since the obituary would list the children.

I've been wondering about the same questions on copyright. I have files full of family histories written by distant relations. Even if an author is listed, are there problems with posting these online? Who is going to object? I'm not injuring the financial interests of anyone by publishing these short histories that my grandma collected for me. Often no author is listed. And never any sources!

I guess I have a lot of questions and no answers!

GLBJ said...

Copyright law is a sticky issue. From what I know, the staff at the CHL was correct in not allowing you to copy it. However, I would suggest you keep trying.

Ardis E. Parshall said...

I'd also suggest that while you cannot have a photocopy, you *can* transcribe it for your own records, and quote from it to the extent of fair use. Gee, if only you knew somebody who spent a lot of time at that library who has a laptop and likes to type ...

Chad too said...

A quick primer from a non-lawyer who researched this very issue back in my grad school days:

Copyright basically attaches from the moment the idea is put into a fixed medium. If you write your mother an e-mail, you hold the copyright on it.

Copyright terms were once as small as 14 years, but Congress has increased them (in no small part due to intense lobbying from major media conglomerates) to the life of the author plus 70 years; the term is potentially longer if the work was done for hire.

Copyright violation has nothing to do with whether or not you gain financially from the violation. If you use copyrighted info in violation of the copyright you can be sued. There are some accepted defenses, including parody and the rather nebulous "fair use," but the burden is on you to prove that your work falls within those exceptions.

If you can track down the author or the family member that retains the copyright and get permission, you can use the information without risk.

Chad too said...

I forgot that you asked about who is being protected with the long copyrights. As I recall originally the thought was that if a person published a masterpiece and got hit by a bus the next day, there was no protection for a widow(er) or children. They would no inherit the copyright beyond the original term and any money that contiued to be generated by the work would be lost to them. Thus, a term that employed the life of the artist plus a proscribed period came into existence.

The really-long terms that we have today came about as certain mouse-like media groups realized that said rodent was about to lose it's protection. They and others big corps lobbied hard to get Congress to extend the terms and won.

A group of plaintiffs, including a genealogist, tried to sue to say that the super-long copyright terms violated the Constitution. The case was Eldred v. Ashcroft if you want to look it up. Basically the Supremes ruled that only a perpetual copyright falls outside Congress' powers, and that as long as there is some limit (100 years, 1000 years, longer) congress is within its powers. Bleh.

BruceCrow said...

Amy,
Thanks. I ran into the same issues you did. But if you think of anything else let me know.

GBHL,
I'm sure you are right that the CHL did the right thing. But you would think they could at least have information on who holds the copyright.

Ardis,
Who could you possibly be talking about? :) Actually I'm hopful I can figure out how to get permission. If that doesn't work I may ask.

Chad,
That is wonderful information. Thanks.

Amy said...

How much do you want permission to use this material? (I like Ardis's idea.) Here are some other ideas on how to contact the descendants of Georgia:

Is there a BH Roberts Family Association? (I can't find one online.)

Has anyone submitted changes on the family to New Family Search? It's easy enough to contact people within NFS.

Has anyone posted information on the family that's at all accurate on Rootsweb? You could try and contact someone there.

Of course, that leads to the question of how much permission you need. Say Georgia has fifty descendants. Is having permission from one of them enough for you to use the material? Would a family member have to order a copy from the CHL? Or could you order one with signed permission from one or more family members?

Boy, this is complicated! Good luck!

Susan W H said...

Bruce--I too have struggled with copyright issues. Under current copyright law publication is no longer necessary as it was when I went to law school. Copyright now lasts for the life of the person plus 70 years, although the term can be longer in certain cases, and it covers diaries, letters, etc. Copyright ownership remains with the creator, or heirs or assigns, unless a written transfer of copyright has been made.

The library was correct in not allowing a photocopy of the entire document, although as I understand it, they could allow a limited selection for research purposes.

It's worse in the UK because they have no "fair use" provision in their law. I recently got copies of letters written in the 1780s by one of my relatives--cost me £50 and I had to sign a statement that the copies were only for research, etc. Yes--I said 1780s--owned by a UK library.

My husband and I have also pondered how much of old family histories and letters we can publish online. I believe in sharing of family information, but I admit I am not happy about relatives who take biographies I have written and post them on Ancestry.com without my permission.

BruceCrow said...

Amy,
Those are some good ideas. I'll let you know what comes of it.

But you bring up a good point about how much permission do I need. There are two missionary journals I want as well. But only family members can have a copy. I wasn't told the same thing with Georgia's writtings, but I may be so.

Susan,
I have been allowed to recieve copies of materials where I don't think the author has been dead 70 years. But they have been through mail. So maybe I just need to ask in a different way.

When I have written about ancestors of mine I have tried to add insight, additional research, or something that would justify just posting what someone else wrote is very common on the internet, but not really research.