Donald Trump may face potential lawsuits in connection to the publication of a new book featuring around 150 private letters dating back decades.
The former president is set to release a new book in April, Letters to Trump, which will contain communications sent to him by celebrities and well-known figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana, Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
However, it is unclear whether Trump has the right to publish these letters as he may not own the full copyright to their content. Winning Team Publishing, the company behind the book, said there had been “actual or implied” permission from the letter senders who are private individuals.
Jane C. Ginsburg, professor of literary and artistic property Law at Columbia University School of Law in New York, said the principle that the writers of letters, not the recipients, retain the copyright in the text has been “well-established in copyright law” for hundreds of years.
Donald Trump (right) may face potential lawsuits in connection to the publication of a new book featuring around 150 private letters dating back decades, including from Oprah Winfrey (inset). Albert L. Ortega/Alex Wong/Getty
“Going back to a famous case from 1741, in which poet Alexander Pope sued Edmond Curll for publishing Pope’s letters,” Ginsburg told Newsweek.
“Pope prevailed. Lord Justice Hardwick announced a distinction between the ‘property of the paper’ which belonged to the recipient of the letters, and the property in the words, which remained with the writer.”
Ginsburg said that this distinction of ownership of copyright as distinct from ownership of material objects is still applied by U.S. courts and codified in sec. 202 of the US Copyright Act.
The act states: “Transfer of ownership of any material object, including the copy or phonorecord in which the work is first fixed [e.g. the original letter], does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work embodied in the object; nor, in the absence of an agreement, does transfer of ownership of a copyright or of any exclusive rights under a copyright convey property rights in any material object.”
In a statement to Newsweek, a spokesperson for Winning Team Publishing said: “The book comprises of a unique collection of correspondence either from President Trump or from public officials both foreign and domestic, or from private individuals. For those in public office at the time, no copyright protection arises.
“For the last category, Winning Team Publishing has either actual or implied consent for their publication.
The issue was discussed on Twitter by Letters of Note, a popular account run by author Shaun Usher which shares “nothing but history’s most interesting letters” from high-profile figures.
“I’m interested to know how he got these cleared for publication. Would Oprah, for example, really agree to that? And Princess Diana’s estate?” The account tweeted.
Yes! I’m interested to know how he got these cleared for publication. Would Oprah, for example, really agree to that? And Princess Diana’s estate?
— Letters of Note (@LettersOfNote) March 9, 2023
“As far as I’m aware, although he owns the letter itself he would still need permission to reprint an image of it as the underlying copyright remains with the author, e.g. Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton.”
According to Axios, Letters for Trump will contain a response from Winfrey after he declared in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, that she would be his first choice for vice president.
In response, Winfrey wrote: “I have to tell you your comments made me a little weepy.
“It’s one thing to try and live a life of integrity—still another to have people like yourself notice.”
In 2021, Meghan Markle successfully sued British newspaper The Mail on Sunday for reproducing large portions of a handwritten letter she had sent her father, Thomas Markle, before her wedding to Prince Harry in 2018. The U.K. High Court ruled it was a misuse of her private information and an infringement of her copyright.
Winning Team Publishing, the company that previously released Trump’s coffee-table photo book, Our Journey Together, in 2022 makes no mention of if they asked each figure for their permission to reprint the letters.
“In his latest book, published by Winning Team Publishing, Letters to Trump, reveals part of the incredible private collection of correspondence between President Donald J. Trump and the countless world leaders, celebrities, athletes, and business leaders who shaped the United States and the world,” the book’s description reads.
Update, 3/9/23, 12:05 p.m. ET: This article was updated with further background information.
Update 3/9/23: This article has been updated with comment from Winning Team Publishing.