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… and a great reader question

It makes for a lovely start to The Legal Genealogist‘s day when a reader’s copyright question focuses on one issue: “What are my responsibilities?”

In this case, it’s an easy question to answer… and there’s an easy reference source that I can point to.

Reader Karen Olynger’s question is one so many of us have:

I have in my possession original letters written in pencil to my great grandfather. 13 letters and Christmas cards were written from 1905 to 1933 by his 1/2 sister. I always wanted to transcribe them before they faded or the paper crumbled away. Of course, everyone is gone but I wondered if there is any copyright problem if I send the transcribed letters to my family with photos of the sister from the late 1890s.

She adds that she also has a family history this half-sister wrote in 1933 that she’d like to include, and intends to make the material available only for her family members and not publish it online.

So, she wonders, “What are my responsibilities?”

What a great question…

And I’m so pleased to be able to tell Karen that she can go right ahead and transcribe and copy and circulate those letters and that history without the slightest concern for any copyright implications.

And I can do that because she provided one more key piece of information– that “The author of the letters passed away in 1936” — and because of what that means if you look at this chart (click on the image to go to the full chart):

Copyright duration chart

This chart — “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States1 — is the brainchild of Peter Hirtle of Cornell University, published every year as part of the Cornell University Library’s Copyright Information Center. It tells us when something transitions in the United States from being copyright-protected to being in the public domain.

Now, once again, the public domain isn’t a physical location; it’s a legal status — “A work of authorship is in the ‘public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.”2

So when something like a letter or a family history enters the public domain, we can use it freely, any way we want, for any purpose (with some limits3), without needing permission from the creator of the work.

Got that? Good.

Now go back to the chart.

The materials Karen’s relative wrote have never been published. So we want to look at the section right at the top of the chart for Never Published, Never Registered Works. That’s where we can see — quickly and easily — that the copyright for unpublished materials lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years.4

And then do the math: the author here died in 1936. Add 70 years to that, and copyright protection ended for anything this woman wrote as of the end of the year 2006.

In other words, these are totally public domain materials.

So what are Karen’s responsibilities?

To tell her family’s stories… kindly, lovingly, completely, truthfully.

And, in this case, without worrying about copyright.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “More on copyright and old letters,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 5 May 2020).


  1. Peter Hirtle, “Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States,” Copyright Information Center, Cornell University Library ( : accessed 5 May 2020).
  2. Definitions: Where is the public domain?,” U.S. Copyright Office ( : accessed 5 May 2020).
  3. Just as one example, I really wouldn’t use a photo of a living person without that person’s permission, even a photo that’s out of copyright, on a pornography website. Just sayin’…
  4. You can double check that in the statute if you’d like. The duration is fixed by 17 U.S.C. §302(a) (“a term consisting of the life of the author and 70 years after the author’s death”), made applicable to materials created before 1978 by 17 U.S.C. §303(a).
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