Have any friends, family, or romantic interests sent you personal letters you believe would make a juicy novel or expose? I recently responded to a query regarding an individual who wanted to compile letters received from other people into a book. Here are my thoughts on the matter.
A personal letter is subject to copyright protection – regardless of whether the letter is published or unpublished. In most cases, the writer of the letter is the copyright owner of the letter. As the recipient of the letter, you exercise control over the tangible copy which you may keep, sell, or discard. However, you do not have the right to reproduce, publish, or exercise any of the copyright owner’s other exclusive rights in the letter.
There have been lawsuits over the unauthorized use of personal letters. For example, an unauthorized biography of J.D. Salinger was enjoined after the author included extensive verbatim passages of Salinger’s unpublished letters without Salinger’s permission.
Also, if the letters include information that qualifies as “private”, you must also consider privacy issues in addition to copyright law issues before doing anything with the letters.