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My grandfather, an academic, wrote several books which were published here in the US by a major publisher, and at least one book published by his university press. All these books have long been out of print. He died in 1974. His last book was published in 1965, I think. His heirs were my mother and my aunt. Both my mother and aunt have been deceased for some years. The surviving heirs are me, my brother, and a daughter of my aunt.

His first book is already in the public domain and has been reprinted. The second one I believe is important for the public to have access to read. It was published in 1933 and renewed in 1961 by my grandfather. There are currently no used copies for sale on Amazon (just to give a general idea of its availability). This was one published by a major publisher.

He had his memoirs published in 1965 by the university press. This book is quite interesting and there are five used copies for sale on Amazon.

I would like to put the 1933 book and the memoirs online for free public access. This would be a non-exclusive use of the copyright, correct? I would also like to be able to publish excerpts in print form, specifically in a local community newspaper.

Do I have the right to do this? Will I need to prove that I do? To whom, under what circumstances? There will be no royalties involved, so I should not be required to notify my co-heirs, is that correct? I would notify my brother, anyway.

The attitudes of my co-heirs, I believe, would be that they have no objection, though if there were money involved, one or both would probably want a cut. Neither of them is in the habit of reading books, even online.

Would either of the publishers be likely to raise any objections? I hope I do not have to contact them, but if I do, what exactly should I ask?

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  • This is likely to be closed as asking for specific legal advice. Unless you can edit it into a general question about the law... Mar 7 at 17:20
  • Ohh, I see. I will try. The guidelines for questions said to provide a lot of specific details. Seems like many questions here are asking about legal situations the questioner finds themselves in. But if necessary I can rewrite it. Mar 7 at 17:55
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    Interesting, because in practice anything that seems remotely linked to actual personal reality is deemed to be asking for legal advice and is quickly closed. Just an observation from someone who has been hanging out for a bit... And you already have two close votes from the folks who do this but don't like to bother with providing constructive feedback for newbies. :( Mar 7 at 19:42
  • It's possible that you don't own the copyrights, due to the contracts signed, which is a whole mess to dig through, especially decades after someone's death. Our policy is to not ask for specific legal advice, which is advertized quite dominantly in the yellow box. If you want to rely on an answer, contact a lawyer in your area.
    – Trish
    Mar 7 at 20:04
  • I would certainly not rely on this as legal advice. Mar 7 at 21:34

1 Answer 1

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Probably not, and yes

The 1933 Book

The 1933 one has copyright until 1 January 2029 - 95 years after publication since the copyright was renewed in the 28th year.

However, who owns the copyright is unclear since your grandfather entered into a contract with a publisher. This will, at the least, have given the publisher a licence and may have transferred the copyright entirely. It will depend on the terms of the contract.

This presents several difficulties.

  1. You have to identify the publisher. The 1933 publisher may no longer exist in the same legal form - there may have been mergers, acquisitions, liquidations, business transfers, etc., in the 91 years since 1993. However, someone owns the rights granted under the contract - you must work out who that is.

  2. Even if the physical evidence of this contract still exists, it is likely to be challenging to locate. If you can't find the contract, then you and the publisher need to agree (or a court needs to decide) on its terms; this may be based on standard publishing industry arrangements for the time, typical dealings of the particular publisher (or author), or, if all else fails, the minimum intrusion on the author's rights that is consistent with what the publisher did.

  3. Was the transfer or licence revoked? Under US copyright law, an author may cancel a transfer or licence by notice within several windows, which, for this work, variously opened and closed circa 1979 to 2013. Given that your grandfather had passed, this probably didn't happen, but one of his children might have done it.

Assuming you can find the publisher, discover or agree on the contract terms, and establish if the work was reverted, you will know if you must get the publisher's permission. If you don't, no worries. If you do, you will have to negotiate the terms.

Then, you must find your grandfather's will to determine who inherited the rights. It may have explicitly addressed the copyrights, and if so, you will know whether your mother, aunt, or somebody else inherited the rights. If it is silent, then it would be treated as residual property and jointly owned by your mother and aunt (assuming he predeceased them). Then, repeat for your mother's and aunt's wills.

The good news is that you do not need the permission of your siblings and cousins to do what you want, but you must account to them for any profit you make.

Simple, right?

The 1965 book

The 1965 book has been in the public domain since 1 January 1986 since the copyright was not renewed in 1985 and automatic renewal did not come in until 1992 - you can do what you like with that one.

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