Would you know if I am violating any intellectual-property laws by quoting a person who died more than 50 years ago? For my next self-published project, I hope to use 100 quotes from a famous person, and then elaborate upon the wisdom contained within. I think I’m within the public domain, but wanted to check with you.
I’m not an attorney and this is not legal advice. Always consult an attorney for any legal needs you have.
That said…you’re probably fine.
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I’ll add still more encouragement to contact his estate and see if you can work with them.. Literary estates vary enormously.
* Some would be delighted that you’re giving their dear grandfather attention. They’ll happily give you permission and may even supply additional unpublished material or write an introduction for it.
* Others simply want money at whatever the market rate is. If you can afford the cost, just pay it. It’ll be a lot cheaper than paying a lawyer $300-400 an hour to defend you if they decide to put teeth to their demands.
* Finally, there are the estates from Hell. Some want to silence all commentary, perhaps fearing family secrets with come out. Others simply want to control what’s said for weird reasons that are hard to explain. If they have the money, they can make your life miserable by taking you to court. Courts move slowly, so even if they don’t have a legal case, they can still tie up publication for a year or more and cost you tens of thousands of dollars. If this author’s estate is in the latter category and you don’t have a major publisher backing your project, I’d advise you to give up on the idea. Some things aren’t worth the trouble.
At any rate, I wouldn’t move any further on this project without investigating how his estate is likely to respond to your project. That’s hard to know, but if anyone has done a biography of him, they should know what you’re likely to face. Contact that fellow for advice. Google for news stories too. Estates that sue have usually been in the news for that.
If you are talking about U.S. law, it can get a bit complicated depending on the first publication date and country. Also, it’s now 70 years not 50, so that will do you no good. Copyright terms are being extended never shortened. Cornell has a breakdown here:
Older complexities are due to a former U.S. requirement to post a copyright notice, register and renew. Later complexities are because we signed onto the Berne Convention, altering our law to fit with it including dropping that requirement for a notice. We also gave foreign holders some special benefits.
In addition,100 quotes is quite a bit, so if the quoted material is still under copyright, fair use requirements will have to be met. That can get messy. Either read online references or consult an IP lawyer for the specifics.
Since the book is completely focused on that now-dead person, you’d be much safer seeking the permission of his estate.