A response by John on my last post persuaded me to post about historical documents and copyrights. Who holds the copyright?
Here’s what I know: For unpublished documents, the copyright belongs to the author from the date of death + 70 years, when pertaining to authors who died before 1937. At that point the documents enter public domain. My understanding is that any document that has been published before 1924 (I believe this is the date) is in the public domain and thus does not require permission for reproduction. This also is the case with historical documents and not just published works, as I understand it. The reason the intern at the National Archives got into trouble was not that he tried to sell important historical documents, but that he stole them. Possession/ownership does not equate to copyright. Just because an archive has ownership of Civil War letters, or that collector has them, does not mean you have to get their permission to publish the letter’s content. They do not have to allow you access to their documents, but they cannot stop you from publishing transcripts if you so desire.
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If anyone has a comment or knows something please chime in….