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.


Reader Comments (rss)

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:07am

    More abuses of copy protection law. Leveraging the fact that it lasts way too long is an abuse. Using it to interfere with free speech is an abuse. Using it in a way that doesn't promote the progress (of the science and the arts) is an abuse.

     

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      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:32am

      Re:

      Also, a pre-settlement extortion scheme is an abuse of copy protection laws. Claiming excessive damages that don't really exist is an abuse of the law. Taking advantage of the low penalties and necessary level of proof for fraudulently claiming public domain works is another abuse of the system.

      What other abuses are there.

       

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:17am

    "A new example comes from the NY Yankees (a team I'm a fan of, I should note)"

    Ugh. And I used to like you....

     

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    Mike42 (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:19am

    gray area

    While the letter of the law says that you own the copyright when you create a work, there's a pretty big question when you sell or give the original work to someone else. One of the big reasons to buy a master's artwork was the ability to reproduce it, and I don't recall copyright contracts being signed.
    I'm not a lawyer, but I would think that when you are given a letter, especially one written for you, the ability to reproduce it would be implied.

     

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    Ron, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:33am

    NY Yankees? Is that a new Hockey team?

     

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    cc (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:36am

    "the Yankees made it clear that the family still owns the copyright on the letters (correct)"

    Aren't the letters in the public domain? According to TFA, they were written in 1949, they obviously bear no copyright mark, and any copyrights were not in any way renewed in the 1970s.

    Of course that applies for published works, and I don't really know about unpublished works.

     

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      ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:40am

      Re:

      And is a sent letter considered 'published?'

       

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      Mike Masnick (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:52am

      Re:

      Aren't the letters in the public domain? According to TFA, they were written in 1949, they obviously bear no copyright mark, and any copyrights were not in any way renewed in the 1970s.

      Of course that applies for published works, and I don't really know about unpublished works.


      Yes, I'm assuming that these would be considered unpublished works, which would would be life of the author plus 70 years. Considering he just died... we've got 70 years.

       

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        Christopher (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 1:43pm

        Re: Re:

        Ah, but he sent it IN THE MAIL! Which makes it a published work and the copyright is over. Actually, I didn't even KNOW that there could be a copyright on letters that I sent to someone!
        Seems like an abuse of the law to do that.

         

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      Danny, Oct 18th, 2010 @ 1:44pm

      Re:

      I was wondering about that too. How can the Yankees have copyright over letters between two people and have nothing to do with baseball?

       

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    Mike (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:38am

    Automatic copyright started when?

    I thought that the copyright on creation was part of the 1975 copyright law changes.

    If I'm right (and please correct me if not), then it's highly unlikely that Steinbrenner registered for a copyright on letters he wrote, and they should be in the public domain.

    No one else has said this, so I must be wrong somehow, please let me know where.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:48am

    Scholarship Loses

    Since the copyright has lasted so long, the proposed memoir cannot be published. Therefore it will not be written. Ms Schriner will die long before the letters enter the public domain. Her recollections will die with her. She is in the galling situation of not being able to use her own property (the letters) as she sees fit. Copyright has trumped her property rights, for the whole of her life. She literally cannot live long enough to gain unfettered control over her own property.

    The proposed memoir would be a work of scholarship about Steinbrenner. Works of scholarship are being continually blocked by crucial documents not being in the public domain. Then primary sources like Ms Schriner die off, thereby preventing the scholarly work from ever existing. This damages US culture. Promoting the progress -- not so much.

     

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    Confused or London, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:03am

    But.... HUH???

    See, this is where you loose me completely with IP law. Under what circumstances does it make any sense to have a law that says you still have any ownership of something you've *given away*??

    What's next? Does this mean next time I buy a sandwich that Pret a Manger is going to tell me where I'm allowed to eat it? The time frame I have to eat it in before ownership reverts to them?

    Does this mean I can track down my old friend from school when I was 5 and claim a portion of the £100,000 he gets for selling the toy car I gave him that turns out to be rare and valuable in today's market?

    SOMEONE explain the sense behind it please? There must have been SOME logic somewhere surely?

     

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    Shawn (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:10am

    I am guessing the only reason Bret Favre has not chased after deadspin to take down the pictures of 'baby brett' is that he would legitimize the pictures... since given the logic of this type of thing Brett owns the copyright since he took the pictures even though he sent them to someone else

     

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    nunya_bidness, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:21am

    Cradle Robber

    Now a days if a 19 year old was dating a 16 year old he would probably be put in jail or sued or some other stupid shit.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 10:11am

    Selling the letters on E-Bay

    Now that she is trying to sell the letter collection on E-Bay (as is her legal right to sell her property), I hope some anonymous (untraceable) buyer comes up with the money, buys them and then leaks them to the internet. If for nothing other than just to show their complete and utter disdain for the draconian measures (i.e. unimaginable lengthy copyright extensions) that have incrementally destroyed the rights of people everywhere, all in the name of corporate interests.

    Current copyright laws clearly show a perfect example of how the U.S. Government is now nothing more than a paid enforcer and a shill for the corporations, and no longer a servant of the public at large.

     

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    s. keeling (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 2:00pm

    Re: Yankees claiming copyright ...

    This is so wrong. Those letters are her property, intended for her by GS. How can anyone exert control over her right to her property?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 16th, 2010 @ 12:45pm

    This is an office ammo topic

    A non-sports fan, this gives me another reason to abuse and make fun of the rabid Yankee fans in my office

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh, Oct 16th, 2010 @ 10:44pm

    Steinbrunner letters

    WAIT! I am an attorney; when did they change the law? The last time I was involved, IP was transferable, and whether sold, given away, or otherwise hypothecated, it belonged to the new owner.
    It appears to me that Steinbrenner GAVE the letters to the lady; if so, she owns them and has the copyright to them. I realize if he had given her a COPY of a letter, meaning to keep ownership of the original, that would be a "whole 'nuther thing", but as I understand it, he gave the ORIGINALS to her, intending for her to keep them as the new owner.
    If he had SOLD them to her, do you think that would be different? I don't.

     

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      Confused of London, Oct 18th, 2010 @ 1:05am

      Re: Steinbrunner letters

      "WAIT! I am an attorney; when did they change the law? The last time I was involved, IP was transferable, and whether sold, given away, or otherwise hypothecated, it belonged to the new owner. "

      See, now that makes a LOT more sense to me. How is it that the judgement seems more often to come down on the side of the money than common sense?

      /naivety

       

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    Mike Schriner, Nov 10th, 2010 @ 12:18pm

    Steinbrenner letters

    I am Mary Jane's son and have had direct dealings with Lonn Trost of the NY Yankees on this matter.

    Whether or not they could win the lawsuit is not the point. They would have spent whatever is neccessary to scare away the publisher, literary agent and co-author.

    Had they sent her a friendly letter, thanking her for her original story in the Times on July 15th, she would have respected their decision and been happy that she could show what a nice person George was back in the day. Instead they bascially threatened her. What a lack of class.

     

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