Not another thorny copyright question? 'fraid so.

In 1966 a Ph.D. student at a major university wrote a dissertation. The dissertation was not published.

I came across it while working on a historical project, and I was very impressed with the quality of the author’s writing and research. It covered a topic that has been virtually ignored by most historians, so I thought it was a shame that the thesis was not more accessable to professional and laymen historians.

I tried to locate the author. Family members told me he was alive when last they saw him (early 1990’s?), but on the lam – out of the USA, evading legal authorities and possibly pissed-off drug dealers for whom he used to work. The family (who he also swindled) had not heard from him in years and didn’t know where he is. (I swear I’m not making this up.)

Is it legal/possible for me to get the dissertation published now?

Is it in public domain yet?

Does the university have any say in the matter?

Can the family give their consent, or must it come only from the author? And, is the author’s absence/unavailability a factor (i.e. would a fruitless “good faith” attempt to locate him be considered a valid reason to proceed without him)?

Does it matter that no financial gain (“profit”) would be involved?

Thanks for your insights and help!

I don’t know! Those are good questions though. I post only to ask, What was the topic of the dissertation? You’ve piqued my curiosity.

An interesting question. Something dated 1966 would have fallen under the old copyright law. If you would have found it before 1977, when the new law came into effect, it may have been public domain (I’m uncertain about how the old law handled unpublished work). Under the revision of the law, the writer holds copyright even if it’s unpublished.

Was the dissertation ever published anywhere? If so, and no copyright was filed, it could be PD. If a copyright was filed, it would still be in effect, since it wouldn’t have expired before the new law came into effect.

Can you publish? There’s no easy answer. You can copyright it in the author’s name, publish it, and put a portion of the proceeds in escrow in case he shows up. Technically he could sue, but if you had made a good faith effort to find him and have money to hand him when he shows up, you’ll probably be all right.

It’s also possible that the university claimed copyright for any dissertations made by their students. You’d have to find out what their policy was. If so, you’d either have to negotiate with the university. BUT, if the copyright was improperly filed or the document had no copyright notice, it would have gone into PD under the old law and copyright would not have been restored under the new.

Financial gain isn’t an issue. However, I’d say a good-faith effort will help insulate you against any infringement lawsuit – but you could still lose.

You’ll need to find someone to reseach the specifics of the case to determine the status.

If the author’s on the lam from drug czars, he has bigger problems than some old paper. How willing would you be to sue over that if revealing your location brings death on your head? I say, write your own damn paper, but use his as a primary source, perhaps quoting him. List the paper as a source in a bibliography. If it’s that interesting a topic, people will look it up. BTW, what’s the topic? Are there any other sources that give info on it?

I am not a lawyer. I do not know whether the paper would be protected by copyright. My own concern would be ethical.

Why was the paper not published in the first place?
Without the author’s agreement, how can you determine whether the thoughts expressed in the paper are still ideas he would wish to have published and associated with his name?

I agree with Derleth that citing the unpublished paper as a source in a paper of your own is a good way to proceed. I would be uncomfortable publishing something under another man’s name without having some assurance that he would wish to have it published. And, yes, I feel the same way about the majority of material published posthumously under the auspices of a writer’s estate.

I don’t think there are ethical problems in this case. I presume the dissertation was submitted to the university and accepted, but not published on any journal. In my university, one prints a few dozen copies of the dissertation, some of which go to libraries (including Library of Congress) but that’s not considered “published.” Still, it is treated the same as any published journal, i.e. the intent is there to make it available to the public. Usually a much shorter version is submitted to a journal for publication.

I agree with RealityChuck, it seems logical to ask the university who holds the copyright.

There are copyright lawyers, we have one in our church. has lawyers too.