Should Newspaper Be Publishing “Love Letters”?

We’ve been discussing the publication of a number of “love letters” from a World War II sailor to his wife back home in San Francisco.  The letters from Claude Everett Dawson to his wife Nadine Henry Dawson were discovered in a trash bin in Grass Valley, Nevada County, California, a Sierra foothills community.   The local newspaper, The Union, has published several of the more than 100 missives and has stated an intention to return the letters to a family member of the Dawsons, if one can be found.  A group of genealogists and others, including GeneaBlogie, have weighed in with volunteer research to help locate a family member.

In the comments to our last post about this, Apple, who writes the fine New England blog, Apple’s Tree, queries:

. . . . Should the paper be publishing these letters? With my current project I’m not publishing anything written by someone who hasn’t been dead at least 70 years. If they don’t know who the heirs are, who holds the copyright?

An excellent question, Apple.  Indeed, several readers of The Union have expressed similar concerns, though not as eloquently as Apple did.  For example, a reader who goes by the name “consarned citizen,” called the publication a “bizarre and cruel activity,” taking the newspaper to task thusly:

Shameful exploitation of the private thoughts of two people who were not writing for publication, who may never have lived in this area, who are dead (and whose immediate heirs might have died of old age).

Another reader of the paper, “nclover,” said simply: “Put the letters back in the trash where you found them.” But reader “havetosayit” compared the letters to the posthumously published letters of great historical figures such as Vincent van Gogh or W.E.B. DuBois. “In my opinion, these letters are a very interesting way of seeing the WW2 era through one sailor’s view,” this reader commented.

Well, what about it? Obviously, there are legal and ethical issues here that the newspaper must have confronted.  Let’s look at the legal issues first.

To whom do the letters belong?  The publisher of The Union says, “The letters belong to [the Dawsons] and, if they are gone, to their survivors . . . .”  That may or may not be correct. I think ownership of the physical letters may depend on how they got into that trash can.  Suppose they had been stolen and the thief, regarding them of no value, discarded them?  From whom were they stolen and did that person have a legal right to ownership?  Or suppose before their deaths in 1994, Claude and Nadine instructed someone to discard them at a certain place and time.  Maybe Claude and Nadine by their wills gave such an instruction.  Or suppose that after Claude and Nadine died, the letters were found by a family member who threw them away?  Maybe the letters were specifically bequeathed to a particular family member or someone else who no longe wanted them and tossed them out for that reason.

The newspaper seems to be operating on the assumption that the letters were discarded inadvertently, which is not an unreasonable assumption; it just might not be true.  And there is no evidence at this point to say for sure.  In that case, the newspaper may be acting reasonably to try to find a potential owner.  But is publication necessary to do that? Another good question.

If the newspaper believes that it does not own the letters, why is it acting as if it does by publishing them without the permission of the owner?  That may be more of an ethical question than a legal question.

Generally speaking, the law regards things that have been intentionally discarded as “abandoned” and anyone may claim such property.  Is the newspaper acting on that principle? If so, why does it care who the letters used to “belong to”?

Which brings us to teh copyright question.  Mere ownership of the phyical objects does not mean onwerhsip of the copyright.  The letters were created between 1943 and 1945.  The Copyright Act of 1909 was in effect then and it was much different than copyright law of today.  The old law placed great emphasis on publication and registration and formalities such as where and how the (c) symbol appeared.  Copyright terms were 28 years with the possibility of renewal for another 28 year term.  The technical requirements of the 1909 Act have mostly been eliminated by the current Copyright Act of 1976 and its 1992 and 1998 amendments, as well as by a treaty called the Berne Convention.

Under the 1909 Act, a work could acquire statutory protection by publication with the required formalities of notice or if unpublished, by registration with the Copyright Office and deposit of a number of copies as required by statute.  Generally, any work not so protected by the 1909 Act passed into the public domain under the terms of the 1976 Act.  [There are some other issues here, so if you have a problem involving such a work, consult a copyright lawyer].

The point is that Claude’s letters are probably in the public domain.  The  newspaper has no problem under copyright law publishing the letters.

[Law Lesson:  Why is Apple referring to 70 years above? Answer: The 1976 Act generally protects works for the life of the author plus 70 years.]

What about invasion of privacy? Well, Claude and Nadine are dead–their right to privacy in this sense went with them. There are other people mentioned in the letters, however.  The newspaper is perhaps calculating that  (1) none of them are sufficiently identifiable from the letters alone and (2) they’re probably dead anyway; both good bets!

Apart from the legal aspects, what about the ethical issues?

Craig Manson is an active member of the California State Bar.  In addition to the California courts, he is also admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court and various other federal courts.  He does not currently practice copyright law.  The information in this article is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice.  If you have an actual legal problem, consult a lawyer in your jurisdiction.


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7 Responses to “Should Newspaper Be Publishing “Love Letters”?”

  • Craig says:

    The copyright on newspapers published in 1913 would have expired in 1949 at the latest. And anyway, it’s not entirely certain that the newspaper had the right to publish them in the first place. So go ahead and use them yourself how ever you want to! As for the divorce papers, you can publish those, too.

  • Nancy Peralta says:

    Love letters were published in a 1913 newspaper in Illinois about my grandmother from a gentleman friend. My grandmother’s ex husband gave The letters to the newspaper when my grandmother’s husband was suing the man for “stealing his wife” and alienation of affection. Since they were in the newspaper in 1913 is the copyright over and can I publish the letters or parts of the letters in my Family History book and on my blog? My grandmother died in 1928 and her first husband who published the letters died in 1956. I want to set the record straight etc and paint the correct picture of my grandmother. I also have the divorce papers. Can excerpts from these be published. The divorce papers explain circumstances about the letters. etc.
    Is the copyright up for the newspaper rights to the letters?
    Thank you,

  • Craig,

    As usual I always find something to read and ponder upon here at your excellent site. My son has dozens of letters exchanged between his grandparents during WW2. His grandmother sill lives (she gave him the huge box of letters before Alzheimer’s took it toll of her memory)— and everyone in the family recognizes that the letters probably contain loads of family history, regional history, and discussions of events of the tense time during war. I hope that one of these days son will edit the letters and print them for the family — but I’d be horrified to think them being read by “strangers.”

    Now I’ve got to think about that big box of loves letters somewhere in the attic!

    Terry Thornton

  • Bill Harshaw says:

    I recall two relatives resolving to destroy the love letters exchanged by my aunt and uncle (YMCA workers in China in the 1920′)after their death (no direct descendants). As a failed historian, I wanted to protest they were probably great original sources. As a family member, I recognized the reticence–Scotch-Irish Presbyterians do not flaunt their love life in public.

  • Apple says:


    Thanks for answering my question. I thought the 1976 law superseded the 1909 law so I had to use the 70 year rule. The next letter in the series that I’m working on was written in 1913 so based on what you’ve written here, I can go ahead and publish it even though the author didn’t die until 1949.

    As far as the ethics of the newspaper publishing these letters I find myself torn. I find the letters interesting and as a genealogist I love a puzzle. However, I know my mother would be very upset at the thought of our publishing her WWII letters even though there is nothing embarrassing in them.


  • A. Spence says:

    I agree with havetosayit about the importance of the letters.

    The newspaper cares b/c it will be one of those great heart felt stories they can publish.

  • Jason Elder says:

    Excellent Blog. I’ve been reading along and just wanted to say hi. I will be reading more of your posts in the future.

    – Jason.

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