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I'm confused! Questions about public domain and my NFPB bio

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I'm fairly new at writing NFPB bios, and suddenly I feel confused about what's okay and not okay.

I recently read the biography of a man from the early 1900s who would (in my opinion) make a WONDERFUL subject for a PB bio. Unfortunately, though, I can't find much about him online--mostly newspaper articles so far. Since the author of the biography (who was the man's niece) is dead, I contacted the editor of the book to see if she could give me any information about whether or not there were documents archived somewhere (like a museum) that went into writing the biography. In corresponding back and forth, I learned that the editor received the manuscript from the niece without much else, and the editor did a bit of research on her own to include a copy of one of the man's speeches and the headline of a newspaper article about him in the book.

I thanked the editor for her time and made a comment that I would have to do my own detective work, as she had. She replied, saying that she didn't know what I had in mind, but she didn't think I could write the story without "obtaining the right" to do so. She also said, "There isn't enough in the public domain to do that and unless you have permission, you really can't use anything that is in the book that is not in the public domain. I am not sure what you have in mind, but it is copyrighted material."

I don't understand this. Couldn't I use the book as one of my sources? I don't think I would, because I'm not sure how reliable it is. There's no source list and it was published long after the subject died. However, doesn't the fact that it's published make it in the public domain? And why would I need to "obtain the right" to write the story on this person?

#1 - February 06, 2017, 01:27 PM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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I'm not sure what the editor is worried about either. You should be able to use the book as a source. However, it isn't "public domain" (my understanding of that is the PD = material that is no longer under copyright. But remember that heirs can renew the copyright).

Although technically you don't need permission to write about a person, to make it feasible, you'd need photographs and other things for which you will need permission.

I hope Jody chimes in because she's written many biographies.
#2 - February 06, 2017, 01:38 PM
TEN EASTER EGGS (Cartwheel/Scholastic, 2015)
www.vijayabodach.blogspot.com
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you'd need photographs and other things for which you will need permission.

Thanks for the input, Vijaya. Just wondering, what are those "other things"? And could you conceivably do it without photographs and use illustrations instead?

I hope Jody chimes in, too. Jody? Jody? :)
#3 - February 06, 2017, 01:47 PM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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http://saramatson.com/

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Hi Sara,

First, you don't need permission to write such a book. If you have some kind of cooperation from the family it can certainly make it easier to track down some of the sources you may need like letters, scrapbooks, and journals. But again, it's not required, and I've never sought permission to write about a deceased subject.

With that said, it can be difficult to write a strictly nonfiction PB bio without access to some kind of material that gives you insight into the subject's thoughts. These don't HAVE to come from an autobiography, journal, or letters. Sometimes you can find oral histories or newspaper interviews from the time. If you can find a copy of the speech, it may help you too.

Hope that helps,

Kirsten
#4 - February 06, 2017, 03:10 PM
Kirsten W. Larson

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Thanks for weighing in, Kirsten. I think if I dig, I might be able to find more material. I might even be able to contact the author's nephew, who was mentioned in the acknowledgements. I asked the editor if she could help me connect with him, but that's when she said those things about copyright and public domain. Perhaps part of it is that she doesn't want me to write about this person? I can't see why, though...
#5 - February 06, 2017, 08:08 PM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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http://saramatson.com/

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Sara,

Lol, you two! How did you know this subject would catch my eye?

I agree with Kirsten. You can use this book as a source, if you find it reliable. And if the person is deceased, you don't need anyone's permission to write about him. (Living folks are a stickier matter.) Though, as Kirsten said, cooperation with the family is great, if you need it. That is, if you can find enough good information without the family, that's good, too. I've never consulted family members about any of my bio subjects, living or dead. (It can be tricky, because they might want to edit unfavorable information.) I found enough reliable information in public sources. Hometown newspapers are great, if you can find them.

Good luck!

Jody
#6 - February 07, 2017, 04:37 AM
PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK, IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS!, THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED
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Yes, as Jody said, hometown newspapers are great. Library of Congress has a great database of them called Chronicling America. It's a wonderful source.

Kirsten
#7 - February 07, 2017, 05:48 AM
Kirsten W. Larson

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Thank you, Jody!

And I hadn't heard of that database, Kirsten. I'm going to check it out!
#8 - February 07, 2017, 08:11 AM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
--Sydney Smith

http://saramatson.com/

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(Living folks are a stickier matter.)
This is interesting.
I am currently writing an inspirational picture book drawing from uplifting world events. One of my pages is based on a great story from US newspapers which was picked up by social media. It is of living people, but I don't intend to name names or anything specific like that. (An entirely fictitious example of this idea is "Staff from the World Bank gave out free money to passers by in 32nd street of New York City". Would something like this be okay in your general opinion?
#9 - February 07, 2017, 01:16 PM
My Australia - National Library of Australia (April 2018)
I've Got Eyes! - Amicus Ink (August 2018)

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Hi Julie,

Yep, totally fine.

It's when they want editorial control over the content that it gets tricky.
#10 - February 07, 2017, 01:50 PM
PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK, IT'S YOUR FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, BUSY BUS!, THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED
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Thanks, Jody. Good to know! : )
#11 - February 07, 2017, 03:27 PM
My Australia - National Library of Australia (April 2018)
I've Got Eyes! - Amicus Ink (August 2018)

www.juliemurphybooks.com

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Library of Congress has a great database of them called Chronicling America. It's a wonderful source.

Wow, you can say that again, Kirsten. I checked it out today and found 15! articles about my subject. Thank you for sharing!!!
#12 - February 08, 2017, 04:41 PM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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Wow, you can say that again, Kirsten. I checked it out today and found 15! articles about my subject. Thank you for sharing!!!

:yay
#13 - February 08, 2017, 06:35 PM
TEN EASTER EGGS (Cartwheel/Scholastic, 2015)
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Sara,

Wooohooo! Great news, and good luck.

Kirsten
#14 - February 09, 2017, 05:50 AM
Kirsten W. Larson

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You mentioned contacting the editor of "the book." I'm assuming it's a book for adults. If it's a book for kids, I wouldn't use it as a source.
When she wrote about "obtaining the right," do you think she was referring to photographs? Or maybe you gave her an idea to do a kid's PB and she is discouraging you because she wants to do it? You can use the information in the adult book, but you have to reword it. I don't believe you can use quotes in the book, but I'm not certain of that. Most PBs don't have much in the way of quotes.
That's awesome that you found so many articles on your subject!
#15 - February 14, 2017, 03:35 PM

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Hi lrzajac,

Yes, it's a book for adults. And I'm not sure what she was referring to--it wasn't photos, because she only had one or two in the book.

Thanks for chiming in.
#16 - February 15, 2017, 08:14 AM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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http://saramatson.com/

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However, doesn't the fact that it's published make it in the public domain?

[/quote]
Public Domain http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm
I like the Cornell Website about copyright. It explains a complicated issue in understandable terms.  The link above explains public domain.
Let me know if you need more info. NOTE: I am not a lawyer. I am a librarian.  I can only give you the law, not interpret it for you.:-)

#17 - February 21, 2017, 05:54 AM

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A helpful link, Sashie. Thank you!
#18 - February 21, 2017, 03:22 PM
"No furniture is so charming as books."
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 This restates what Vijaya said above, "A work is in the public domain if it is no longer under copyright." The fact that it's published doesn't mean it's in the  public domain unless it falls under conditions specified in this:
http://www.usu.edu/copyrightatusu/alternatives/public-domain.cfm   :horse2 :horse2 :horse2 :horse2 :horse2
#19 - February 21, 2017, 03:59 PM

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