Saturday, 24 June 2017

Publish And Be Damned

Hi everyone.

I hope you are having a good summer wherever you are in the world.

I wasn't expecting to discover this week that I have something in common with former royal butler Paul Burrell but it appears that I have. His book A Royal Duty published in 2003, is based on his experiences as butler to Diana, Princess of Wales who tragically died in a car crash twenty years ago this year. The book caused considerable controversy at the time because of the "revelations" it contained about Diana's private life based on personal letters that Burrell had included in his book.

Nothing unusual there then, given the apparent penchant of ex-employees for spilling the royal beans. What was different about Burrell's book however was that Burrell had not only included letters written by the late princess to himself, but had also included letters written by Prince Philip to his daughter-in-law in the early 1990s.

Princess Diana dancing with John Travolta at the White House
Photo Credit: Ronald Reagan Library (PD)

This brought into focus the whole question of who owns a letter once it has been sent. It's a dilemma that I've been wrestling with ever since I discovered a cache of about eighty letters and postcards hidden at the back of my late mother's wardrobe after her death in 2010.

The letters I found had been written to my grandmother by a close friend of hers called Ethel North. Ethel was lady's maid to Lady Winifred Burghclere, the sister of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon who along with Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun's tomb. The letters were written between 1919 and 1933 while Ethel was travelling to some very exotic locations with her employer. Although obviously not in the same revelatory league as Burrell's letters, they do contain some fascinating gossip about many leading figures of the day including King George V, Sir Winston Churchill and General Haig.

George V and Queen Mary

As soon as I found the letters I knew almost immediately that I wanted to try and get them published. I started typing them up and researching their content with a view to publishing them as a non-fiction book called My Dear Elsie.

Everything was going fine until I discovered that although I own the actual letters themselves, I don't own the copyright to them. That still belongs to the "residual legatees" of Ethel's estate, in other words her legal heirs.

Despite my efforts to trace the copyright holders, I have reached a bit of an impasse, mainly because it is proving difficult to find out exactly who these legatees are. Ethel had five sisters and most of them had children so there seem to be quite a number of potential copyright holders involved.

Of course, the whole issue of copyright law is rather ridiculous in this situation anyway. It's not as if the copyright holders can do anything with the copyright as they don't own the actual letters because I do. And if I can't do anything with the letters because I don't own the copyright, then no one is ever going to find out what George V used to say to Prince George (later the Duke of Kent) when the latter had stayed out all night at a ball, or why General Haig could command the entire British army but fail to control his teenage daughter! 

A page from one of Ethel's letters

A fellow writer has urged me this week to "publish and be damned" as she feels I've probably already done enough to try and trace the copyright holders. According to an article she kindly sent me in relation to the Burrell book, there is some room for manoeuvre. Apparently there can be a legal defence when it comes to using copyrighted material of "criticism, review and new reporting" which was interesting to discover.

Of course, whether or not I can take the probably faint risk of an expensive lawsuit if any of Ethel's legatees decide to challenge my book, remains to be seen. After all, Burrell seems to have got away with it. On the other hand, I could wait another thirteen years and the letters will be out of copyright anyway as it will be 70 years after Ethel's death. So to publish or not to publish? That is the question.

What do you think I should do?

If you'd like to find out more about Ethel's letters please visit the website