Another copyright question – permission from essay contributors

I know there have been a lot of intellectual property and copyright questions, but I don’t recall seeing one with this nuance. It deals with the need to get copyright permission from individual essay writers in a collection.

I am in a non-profit group that published several books in the 1950s and 1970s. They are collections of essays by several different people. We are looking to reprint the books (or technically, publish all of the essays that were collected in the books) in an omnibus edition. The books list the copyright holders as the two editors of the books, who were also the group president and vice-president at the time, but the individual essay writers are not listed. It is extremely unlikely that there was any formal written agreement in regards to the essays, and individual writers were not compensated as all proceeds went to the group. The two editors are dead, and we plan to ask permission to reprint from their surviving family. So we will have the identified copyright holders covered.

I would like to know if we need to contact the individual essay writers or their heirs. Some would be easy to contact, and we will contact them regardless if only out of courtesy. For a few from the 50s who have since died, it may be lot more difficult to track down their heirs. Do we have to make that effort to be in proper accordance with copyright laws? In the absence of written agreements, what rights do individual contributors to books retain? Thank you for any insight you can provide.

(Caveats – I am not looking for actual legal advice, only considered opinions. You are not my lawyer. Void where prohibited. My mileage varies. All help is gratefully appreciated, but I will take responsibility for all actions relating to the subject at hand and decisions made.)

Were the books actually copyrighted? If they were published before 1978, to actually hold copyright, the collection had to be registered. If not registered, the books have no copyright protection.

If actually copyrighted and registered, it matters how the registration reads. Under the old law, it was quite possible that the contributors had no protection – that would go to the editors/copyright holders.

The fly in the ointment is what might have happened since then. IIRC, there was a mechanism to reestablish copyright under the current law. In theory, one of the heirs might have done that.

Talk to a lawyer, but since you have permission from the two people listed as holding the copyright, you’re in fairly good shape, but the only way to be completely sure is to contact the writers or their heirs. You could print the essays with a disclaimer that you believed the work to be covered by the compilation copyright, but will discuss the issue if someone can show otherwise (let a lawyer write it).

Or, if you’re not in a hurry, the Copyright Office is formulating rules on “orphan works,” which this would probably fall under. I haven’t heard about any ruling yet, though.

You really need to consult a coypright lawyer qualified to practice in your jurisdication. However, just for your information, the Copyright Act of 1976, in 17 U.S.C. Sec. 201(c), grants the owner of a copyright in a collective work (such as an anthology) the privilege of making and distributing revisions. This privilege, however, does not extinguish the ownership rights of those who contributed works to the anthology.

Whether and how this would apply to your works is a question that you’ll have to ask your lawyer.

If the organization that originally published the works is the organization that wants to reprint them, then I believe that the works would not be considered “orphan works.”

Thank you very much for the answers guys. After I posted my question I thought that I really should Google for information. :o Oops, sorry. From Copyright basics I find

Copyright in each separate contribution to a periodical of other collective work is distinct from copyright in the collective work as a whole and vests initially with the author of the contribution.[\url]
However, RealityChuck’s comments made me realize that I need to pay attention to the published date and actual phrasing of the copyright notice. (Does is actually say “© 1951 editor’s name”?) The book dates are 1951, 1957 and 1978. The last is after the 1976 Copyright Act so I need to pay attention to any rule changes.

I also appreciate the emphasis on asking a qualified lawyer in this area. May I retroactively add that to my caveats? :wink: We will, or it may be easier and cheaper to just contact all of the original authors or their heirs. We may need to gather that information for an attorney anyway.

Any other (non-binding) opinions are welcome, but I think the two good comments thus far are leading me to the Straight Dope.

The book from 1978 would then require permission: the authors’ contributions (assuming they never formally assigned the rights) are still under copyright.

The earlier books probably aren’t under copyright if the authors never formally applied for one. But that’s not 100% certain.

This is not correct. The owner of a collective work has a presumed privilege to issue revisions. It is a privilege of right. The text of 17 U.S.C. Sec. 201(c) states:

My guess is that the “privilege of reproducing and distributing … that particular collective work” applies even with an interruption of a few decades.