One of the challenges that face 20th century editing projects, especially digital ones, is the need to obtain copyright permission. We are in the midst of researching and contacting heirs to the authors of letters in the Jane Addams Digital Edition. It is a complicated process, but one that is essential for historians, archivists and editors who publish materials online.
- Documents published before 1926 are in the public domain. That means newspaper articles, journal articles, books, and other materials.
- Documents published after 1926 may be in public domain, but you will need to determine whether the copyright has been renewed.
- Unpublished documents are in public domain if the author died more than 70 years ago. If the author was a company, they are in public domain if the document was written more than 120 years ago. That means letters, unpublished reports, articles and speeches.
We have identified over 4,500 individuals and 600 organizations thus far in our work for the digital edition. Not all of these people wrote letters — some received the letter and others were merely mentioned in it. We do not need to clear permission for those individuals and organizations.
The Jane Addams Digital Edition tracks all mentions of people in documents. As our editorial assistants enter each document, they create links to the people already in the edition. For example, in a letter written to Jane Addams by Vida Dutton Scudder, we might record eight personal names — the author (Scudder), the recipient (Addams) and the names of four people mentioned.
If one or more of these people are new to the digital edition, the editorial assistant creates a new record for that person. While we don’t do a lot of research at this point on that person, we do try to secure birth and death dates. This year, the magic number is 1947. If our person died before 1947, we can mark their rights as public domain. Any documents written by them are all set for publication.
If, however, we cannot locate a death date, or we locate a date after 1947, we need to conduct some research. Editorial assistants flag the person’s record as copyright permission “pending.” We do this for all new names, whether or not they are authors.
As we move toward proofreading metadata and transcriptions for publication, we generate a list of all the documents in a given year that are not ready to publish. When we were not able to locate a death date, the editor will make another attempt to find it, and hopefully clear the documents. We are then left with a list of authors that are not in the public domain.
Our copyright research squad consists of two people, researcher Ellen Skerrett and project assistant Nina Schulze get down to the nitty gritty of copyright research.
There are a number of ways to try to locate the copyright holder of a deceased author.
- If the person’s papers are stored at an archive, you can contact them. Often times they will have some information about the person who donated the papers, or have contact with family members. A good site to search for archival holdings is Archive Grid.
- If the person is a published author, you may be able to contact their publisher, who may know who controls the copyright on the book, or who gets royalty payments. That can lead you to the next link in the chain.
- Otherwise, we hope to find the children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or more distant relatives. Many people never dedicated their literary rights in a will, but they are assumed to fall to the heirs.
We use the genealogy site Ancestry.com and the digital newspaper site Newspaper.com, among other resources, to try to locate heirs. We look for the names of children in the available U.S. Census records, newspaper articles and obituaries, and other web-based resources. Obituaries are an invaluable resource because they update the names, especially of daughters who might have married, and in many cases provide the city or state where those survivors. We then use internet directories and phone books to try to locate current addresses.
Some people are easier to find than others. People with common surnames can be all but impossible, especially those who lived in large cities. When a person left no children, we try to go up the family tree. looking for a brother or sister, to find nephews, nieces, or cousins. It is usually easier to locate famous people’s families — the chances are better of finding a long and detailed obituary.
We then write a letter, hoping that we have gotten the right person, and wait for a result. These letters are fun to receive, often enclosing a letter written by an ancestor to Jane Addams that opens up a new story a family’s history. Family members are often amazed and intrigued to know how we were able to find them.
Good faith efforts
We are allowed to publish without securing copyright if we make a good faith effort to locating the heirs. For us, this means following all leads that we can find, tracking all known children. One of the ways that we keep looking after we have exhausted all leads is to post the names of people we still seek on our website. The hope is that you might Google an ancestor and find the project’s site, even if we can’t find you!
If you think your (great) grandmother knew Jane Addams….
We are still searching for more Jane Addams letters. If your family history involves an late 19th or early 20th century social reformer, peace activist, or settlement worker, or if your family had roots in Chicago or worked for woman suffrage, we would love to hear from you. We can check to see whether we have any letters in the archives we have searched, and would be delighted to include any letters your family might still hold.