Archives and copyright quicksands: Help!

Hi everyone,
for the first time I’m stuck with my writing project and it’s not my fault! I’m into this very intricate biography-project, and while Scrivener is helping me to cope with the amount of research material with unexpected success, I’m finding the outside world much more frightening than the blank page. I’m stuck with unpublished letters, memos and misc writings found during my research in private archives. I collected a wealth of information and unpublished treasures, sheding new light onto the lives of a couple of interesting XX century artists… but I’m still in the process of collecting material and I haven’t written much; a proposal to a publisher is still a long way to come, so I started by asking the copyright owners of said material for copyright clearance… I got no reply; no acknowledgment, no nothing; most of them are across the ocean so it’s not going to be easy… Has anybody had a similar experience? Would you suggest I go along, citing passages from unpublished letters and not worry about not being able to use them for the time being? To me this is the psychological equivalent of driving a car with the brakes pulled all the time.
Thanks for any help!

You won’t know until you write the book which materials you’ll actually use. No copyright owner is likely to grant blanket permission to use an entire archive–you’ll need to be able to tell them what specifically you want to use, and possibly some of the surrounding context.

Also, the law surrounding “orphan works” (those for which the copyright owner can’t be located) is in a state of flux and may very well change by the time you’re done.

It’s certainly worthwhile to start locating copyright owners, maybe reaching out to them in general terms about their willingness to have you use their material. But the formal permission request needs to wait until you know what you’re asking permission for.


Katherine’s right. Just keep plugging away at your project. Only when you’re finished will you know how many copyright permissions you’ll need to seek.

Thank you both for your replies; as a matter of fact, in some cases I already know what material I’m going to quote from; what was worrying me was the lack of replies I got… besides, I’m sure some of the copyright owners are not even aware that their material is part of a given archive… some stuff I found hasn’t been catalogued yet. I’ll go on writing and in due course I’ll made contact again. I just find legal stuff very distracting…

I’m right there with you - and I’m a lawyer, for Heaven’s sake! :open_mouth: Courage, Dear! And don’t forget to yell for help if you need it.