Originally scheduled to be published in August, 2018, it is now delayed till sometime in 2019.
The issue is permission to quote from the hundreds of letters I’ve read in Doris Duke’s archive at Duke University. A letter six years ago led me to believe that the library owned the copyrights as well as the physical papers.
I learned suddenly that this was not the case.
Now I’m up against the enormously complicated twists and turns in U.S. copyright law, which attempts to balance a letter writer’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know.
In many lawsuits and appeals over the last two decades, various courts have come down on the side of the letter writer’s privacy, seriously crippling the writing of biographies and history.
These conclusions are based on the outcome of a case brought by J.D. Salinger against Random house, publisher of the first biography of the writer, including quotations from unpublished letters Salinger had placed in several libraries.
The potential commercial value of these letters was a consideration. Salinger had reason to believe he could eventually sell them.
But he had given them, instead, to public libraries, which to me means that he understood that he was contributing to a further understanding of his work and life. This was the decision I made when I donated my papers to Duke University, for an archive of many women’s papers named for me.
The letters written by long dead, unknown friends and lovers to Doris Duke are unlikely ever to be published. But this is a minor consideration, compared to the anxiety of lawyers who drew the conclusion from the many Salinger trials that only “ten percent” of any unpublished letter can be quoted without the permission of the letter writer—not the person to whom it was sent, even in the case where the letter writer is long dead, or her heirs, if they exist, unfindable in remote parts of the world.
This draconian rule has forced me to write eighty pages of paraphrasing, losing, of course, the tone and texture of the original letters. I have only been able to quote Doris’ letters, of which there are only a few, or her father’s, which are now—due to their age—in the public domain. Public domain used to be defined as fifty years after the death of the individual. Now the time period has been increased to seventy-five years, further hampering research.
For years, the Authors’ Guild has been struggling to win its case against Google Books, where the entire contents of books are listed online. I looked up Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; the whole novel is available, free, on the screen from Google.
That novel is in the public domain. But a preview of Kayleen Schaefer’s 2018 Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendship is also available on Google Books, potentially seriously impacting the already small amount of profit—probably in the hundreds of dollars—the author and her publisher might hope to make.
This is serious.
Writers—and publishers—in this country are barely surviving. Many of the big houses have been bought by foreign conglomerates, whose focus on the bottom lines trumps all. Writers, like me, are lucky if we clear ten thousand dollars a year, far below minimum wage. Meanwhile Google, the giant monopoly, sucks up a large portion of even those pitiful sums.
I’m proud of the Authors’ Guild for continuing this battle, which, given the corporatizing of this country, they are not likely to win.
Meanwhile historians and biographers are starved of our essential research.
And I am dying the death of ten thousand pricks.