Copyright relates to intellectual property. It is different to physical ownership. Though King’s College owns letters from D.H. Lawrence to E.M. Forster, they only own the physical object, the piece of paper. D.H. Lawrence’s heirs own the rights to the words on it, the intellectual property. It can be quite complicated so this is just a rough guide. If you have any questions, particularly when you are carrying out any research, just ask an archivist and they will try to help.
Copyright belongs to the creator of a document so a single collection can include hundreds of copyright owners. The papers of Rupert Chawner Brooke held at King’s College Archive Centre include letters which he received and photographs of him. Although he received these items, he obviously did not create them so did not own the copyright on them.
Copyright lasts for a certain amount of time, which depends on the following:
- When did the author(s) die?
- Has the document been published? (anything unpublished will be in copyright until December 2039, even if it was written in 1066)
- When was the document published relative to the author’s death?
- What sort of document is it?
In most cases, copyright will expire seventy years after the death of the document’s creator, although in some cases it will last longer due to publication after the authors death. When somebody dies, their copyright is passed on to their next of kin unless they assigned it to someone during their lifetime or in their will. In the case of famous writers, this person is known as their literary executor.
Here is an example of how copyright works.
Not only were Rupert Brooke and E.M. Forster both writers, they were both members of a secret society called the Apostles. That society would meet and read their academic papers to each other. On 24 November 1911, E.M. Forster wrote to Rupert Brooke saying that he would incorporate Brooke’s paper on art into a novel.
Once he received it, the letter belonged to Rupert Brooke. It is now owned by the Brooke Trustees, who have deposited it at King’s College, Cambridge. If you wanted to use the letter in a book, blog or other form of publication, you would have to contact the owner of E.M. Forster’s copyright (his literary executor).
In addition to clearing copyright, if you also wanted to show an image of the original document, rather than just quoting from it, you would have to contact the owner of the physical document to ask for a digital image and permission to use it.
Regarding the contents of the letter, it is not clear whether Brooke gave Forster permission to use his paper on art in the novel but if he did, he would have approved a (non-formal) copyright request.
Finding who owns copyright
How do you find out who owns the copyright? For many famous writers, this information is available on a website called WATCH. In some cases, this will give the name of somebody who ‘administers’ the copyright, rather than owning it. That is still the person to contact.
If a person’s copyright owner/administrator is not listed, it is usually possible to find out who it is by looking at their will, although this can involve a bit more work.
There are some exemptions to copyright, for example ‘fair dealing’ might allow you to use short quotes from a document. There are also exemptions relating to educational use, however it is always best to ask an expert before using anything you think might be in copyright.