I have a question for you, and a tip for your readers.
A student in my “Write For Dollars” class asked this question, and I was unsure of the answer. I told her I would “check with the expert.” At a recent garage sale she purchased several letters that had been written between husband and wife during World War II. She wants to use portions of these letters in a creative nonfiction story, but does not want to alter the principal characters’ “real” names. Her question: Is this legal? Is it ethical? Does she have an obligation to consult or discuss her plans with family members of the deceased couple prior to publishing? Would family members of the couple have a right to reclaim these letters once their existence was made public? (They were sold by a son who is estranged from the rest of the family.)
The people who wrote those letters are the copyright owners of those letters. If they are deceased, the ownership passes to their heirs. So, yes, the writer needs to get permission to use those from the couple’s heirs before she does so.
It’s my personal opinion that she should try to find the family members. I think it’s horrid that the estranged son is selling historical items that he undoubtedly knows are priceless to other family members. Imagine getting copies of decades-old letters that your mom wrote to your dad and vice versa from a well-meaning person who found them at a garage sale.
Finding the family and giving them the letters would make a great story for a magazine! The writer could definitely write about that.
In the paper the other day was a story of a man who found a letter in a bunch of old newspapers he bought at a garage sale. Instead of just keeping it or tossing it, he ran an ad in the paper to see if he could find the family (the old address was near his town). The family responded and were very happy to finally receive the very last letter their loved one had written before he’d been killed in World War II. His sister said the part that saddened her is that her parents are dead and never knew about the letter. The article can be found online here: http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/12642108.htm
The writer could probably make copies of the letters and ask the family if she can use them in her book. I bet they’d say yes as thanks for getting the letters to them – back in the family where they belong.