Yankees Claiming Copyright To Block Memoir Involving 60 Year Old Letters From A Young George Steinbrenner

from the speech-and-free-speech dept

One of the claims that people make when we talk about how copyright interferes with free speech is the claim that "copying isn't free speech." Whether or not that's actually true is a debate we'll save for another day, but an even bigger concern is how often copyright is used not to block copying, but new forms of speech that build off of those other works. A new example comes from the NY Yankees (a team I'm a fan of, I should note), whose famed owner George Steinbrenner, passed away this year. Apparently, back when he was a teenager, he had a friendly (bordering on romantic) relationship with a young girl in his town, Mary Jane Schriner, and he wrote her letters, which she's kept until this day. When Steinbrenner died, Schriner took the letters out of her dresser and shared them with her family, which led to a nice NY Times piece about her recollections of her time with the young Steinbrenner, along with an image of one of the letters:
It's actually kind of a sweet story.

Anyway, a writer contacted Schriner, and suggested perhaps putting together a memoir about her time with the young George Steinbrenner, which would use the letters, and weave them into a more complete narrative. The Schriner family, politely asked the Yankees their feelings on the matter, and apparently received a sternly worded letter, saying that publishing the letters:
"will cause untold embarrassment and damages to the Steinbrenner family and the Steinbrenner's business interests."
Further comments on the matter in the article, suggest that the Yankees made it clear that the family still owns the copyright on the letters (correct) and that this could be the method through which they would block any publication. It sounds as if the family has given up on the plans to do the book, which really is a shame, but it certainly seems like there would be a pretty strong fair use claim here as well. Beyond the questions about how reminiscence of a friendship from 60 years ago might "damage the family business interests," it's worth pointing out that copyright is not supposed to be used to block "damaging the family business interests." Being embarrassed by what's in a document is not something that takes away fair use rights.

The article quotes an NYU law professor, who correctly points out that the copyright on the document and physical ownership are different, but I'm not sure it's accurate to state, absolutely that "she cannot publish the letters." I think a strong case could be made for fair use in publishing a memoir that includes those letters. It's not as if the Steinbrenner family has some sort of commercial interest in the letters. Instead, however, we get yet another case where just the threat of a copyright claim -- even one that doesn't seem to have much legal basis -- is holding back speech.

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  1. icon
    Ron Rezendes (profile), 15 Oct 2010 @ 10:35am


    While I don't always agree with Mike (yes it happens), I often wondered what it was that kept me from really liking the guy and well, now I know! ;P

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