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Next in an occasional series on copyright — the foreign letters

Reader Cynthia Shenette has what she describes as “a wonderful pre and post WWII collection of letters, so informative and at times heartbreaking.” She hasn’t yet published them, in part because of “the sensitive nature of some of the content.” But now with the passage of time, she writes, “I would love to revisit them and consider posting some of them on my blog, but I do not want to violate the writer’s copyright.”

PolandComplicating the question for Cynthia are the facts that the letters were written by family in Poland, and that they have been translated into English by a cousin.

Under these facts, what’s the copyright status of the letters?

Great question, and The Legal Genealogist was delighted that Cynthia recognized that there are four issues here: (1) the ownership of the letters themselves; (2) the copyright interests of the letter writers; (3) the copyright interests of the translator; and (4) the fact that these were written in Poland, not the United States, and so the law to be applied may be different.

Now before we tackle these questions, I need to do my disclaimer bit again. Always remember that I’m commenting generally on the law here and not giving legal advice, and you may want to consult your own attorney, yadda yadda yadda.

Ownership of the letters

This is the easiest part of the entire problem. Cynthia noted that the letters came to her as part of her grandmother’s papers, and adds: “I am the legal heir to my grandmother’s papers as they were left to my mother and then to me.”

So there’s no question here about Cynthia’s legal ownership of the letters themselves. They’re hers. But as Cynthia recognizes, that leads to the next question.

Copyright of the letter writers

Owning specific physical items — these letters themselves — is entirely separate and apart from owning any copyright there may be in the items. The U.S. Copyright Office explains that:

Mere ownership of a book, manuscript, painting, or any other copy or phonorecord does not give the possessor the copyright. The law provides that transfer of ownership of any material object that embodies a protected work does not of itself convey any rights in the copyright.1

Neither Cynthia’s grandmother nor her mother owned the copyright to letters written by others. The letter writers themselves owned those rights and Cynthia doesn’t have any evidence that they ever transferred those rights, or intended that they be transferred, to her grandmother or mother.

So if there is still copyright protection of the letters, it belongs to the writers or their heirs.

Copyright of the translator

Cynthia is also correct to note that there’s a question of the rights of the translator, her cousin.

It’s a given that copyright law — both in the United States and internationally — protects original works.2 A translation, on the other hand, is by definition a derivative work, but even so “may qualify for copyright protection by possessing sufficient originality.”3


Let’s break that down. The first part of that sentence is talking about the legal relationship between the original authors — the letters writers — and the translator. The second part is talking about the legal relationship between the translator and anybody else who wants to use the translation.

Under the first part, the hefty legal rights are those of the original author, because the translator’s work depends on — derives from — the original. That’s why the second word, the translation, is called a derivative work. If the translator wants to publish his or her translation of someone else’s work, the translator has to get the permission of the original author or authors. Just translating a letter for its recipient or for private use without publishing it isn’t a problem and doesn’t require permission.

Under the second part, even if the original document is out of copyright or the author has given permission, anyone else who wants to publish the translation needs the permission of the translator, because the translator has put enough of his or her own original thought into the translation. (If you don’t think original thought is required for a translation, try a machine translation one day.)

In Cynthia’s case, the translations were done by “a cousin who has given his permission to post his translations” on her blog. So she’s covered there.

Three down, one to go.

Copyright law in Poland

The last part is the trickiest part, and Cynthia gets high marks for recognizing that there really is an issue of international law here. The letters were written in a foreign country, and there’s always the chance that the law of another country will be different from the law here in the United States.

For copyright, in fact, there’s a pretty good chance the law won’t be the same, as this map shows (click to enlarge):


The question of which country’s law will apply when letters are written in country A and sent to country B isn’t an easy one. There can be what’s called a “conflict of laws”:

A difference between the laws of two or more jurisdictions with some connection to a case, such that the outcome depends on which jurisdiction’s law will be used to resolve each issue in dispute. The conflicting legal rules may come from U.S. federal law, the laws of U.S. states, or the laws of other countries.4

In the United States, of course, the rule for unpublished papers like these letters is that they are protected by copyright for the lifetime of the letter writers plus 70 years.5

But how do you find out what the law is in another country?

A great resource for copyright law is the World Intellectual Property Organization website. That body, known as WIPO, is “the United Nations agency dedicated to the use of intellectual property (patents, copyright, trademarks, designs, etc.) as a means of stimulating innovation and creativity.”6

On its site, you can find things like a guide to international copyright basics, information on various international copyright treaties, and what’s called WIPO Lex, “a one-stop search facility for national laws and treaties on intellectual property (IP) of WIPO, WTO and UN Members.”7

Using the search mechanism at WIPO Lex, we can find out that Poland has two primary laws on copyright, Law of June 9, 2000 on Amendment to Law on Copyright and Neighbouring Rights and Law No. 83 of February 4, 1994 on Copyright and Neighboring Rights (as last amended on October 21, 2010).8

And using the English-language links provided, we discover that Polish law on these letters is the same as American law: under Article 36 of Law No. 83, the copyright of a Polish author “shall expire after the lapse of seventy years … from the death of the author…”9

Bottom line: Under American law and Polish law, Cynthia can publish any of the letters written by a person who died more than 70 years ago, and any letter written by a person whose permission she can obtain. And with her translator-cousin’s permission, she can publish his translation of those letters as well.


Map Image by Balfour Smith, Duke University
Courtesy Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain

  1. U.S. Copyright Office, Circular 1: Copyright Basics, PDF version at p. 2 ( : accessed 30 July 2013).
  2. See e.g. 17 U.S.C. § 102(a), granting copyright protection to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”
  3. See Laura N. Gasaway, “Copyright in Translations,” Copyright Corner (Nov. 2004) ( : accessed 30 July 2013).
  4. Conflict of laws,” Definition, Legal Information Institute, Cornell University ( : accessed 30 July 2013).
  5. See Peter B. Hirtle, “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States,” Cornell Copyright Information Center ( : accessed 30 Jul 2013).
  6. What is WIPO?,” World Intellectual Property Organization ( : accessed 30 July 2013).
  7. WIPO Lex,” World Intellectual Property Organization ( : accessed 30 July 2013).
  8. WIPO Lex search results, Poland and copyright ( : accessed 30 July 2013).
  9. Law No. 83 of February 4, 1994 on Copyright and Neighboring Rights (as last amended on October 21, 2010),” Resources: Poland, World Intellectual Property Organization ( : accessed 30 July 2013).
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