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Who owns the Jackie Kennedy Letters?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Over 30 private letters written by Jackie Kennedy to Irish priest, Fr Joseph Leonard, from 1950- 1964 will be auctioned by Sheppard’s Irish Auction House on 10 June 2014. The letters contained some intensely private recollections by Mrs. Kennedy in relation to the death of two of her children, her marriage to President John Kennedy, previous relationships and some colourful references to her mother–in-law Rose Kennedy. The auction will be broadcast live on the internet and it is expected to attract huge international interest. The sellers were revealed last week as All Hallows College in Dublin. A dispute has already arisen in the Irish courts about who has authority to sell the letters. Separately, people are asking where the copyright in the letters lies and whether this will have any effect on the proposed sale of them.

Who owns the letters?

The recipient, Fr. Leonard, was the original owner of the letters. Fr. Leonard was a member of the Vincentian Congregation, a Catholic clerical society. After his death, the letters would have passed to his heirs. Fr. Leonard’s rights were to the physical possession of the letters. It is very doubtful that he would have owned the copyright in them.

The difficulty is that Fr. Leonard died in 1964 without leaving a will, having spent the last 25 years of his life living at All Hallows College. All Hallows has explained that it is the custom in the Vincentian Congregation, a priest’s possessions revert to the community where he had been living. All Hallows has claimed ownership of the letters on this basis. However, it is not clear from the recent news reports whether any relatives of Fr. Leonard are likely to appear to challenge All Hallows’ ownership of the letters.

Who owns the copyright?

Although Fr Leonard owned the physical letters, Jackie Kennedy would have been the owner of the copyright in the letters, because she was the author of them. Upon her death, her copyright would have passed to her estate (or she may have named specific beneficiaries of her various copyright works in her will). In Ireland, copyright subsists for a period of 70 years after the death of the author. This means that the letters will be protected by copyright for the benefit of Mrs. Kennedy’s estate until 2064.

Does copyright matter?

As All Hallows is entitled to sell the physical letters, does it matter that it doesn’t own the copyright in them? The answer depends on what the purchaser of the letters wishes to do with them. All Hallows (or any purchaser) is not permitted under Irish copyright law to copy the letters, publish them, or adapt them without the consent of Mrs. Kennedy’s estate. Therefore, if for example, a historian purchased the letters and then published, he or she could find themselves having to defend copyright infringement proceedings despite having paid the estimated auction price of €800,000 – €1.2 million. In the above example, if the historian instead published extracts of the letters together with commentary or analysis he may be able to claim in his defence that his conduct amounted to fair dealing. This appears to be the basis for last week’s publication by the Irish Times newspaper of limited extracts from the letters.

Copyright law gives rise to another potential issue, this time more directly concerned with the sale of the physical letters themselves. One of the rights within the control of the copyright owner is the right to control the “first distribution” of the relevant copyright work. In the case of Ireland, this essentially is the right to control when the work is first placed into circulation somewhere in the EU. The letters were clearly written by Mrs. Kennedy to Fr. Leonard in a private capacity, and were no doubt intended by Mrs. Kennedy to kept private. Does the “release” of the letters by means of the public auction constitute a “first distribution” of the letters that would be subject to control by Mrs. Kennedy’s estate? Even if not, will the purchaser of the letters be constrained in, for example, putting them on public display based on this “first distribution” right, even if they never copy them or otherwise publish them? Depending on the attitude of Mrs. Kennedy’s estate, there may be interesting future questions around the copyright in the letters.

Legal dispute

It has taken less than a week for the first legal dispute relating to the letters to arise. On Friday 16 May 2014, Mr. Justice Kelly of the Irish Commercial Court granted an interim injunction restraining Owen O’Neill, a rare book expert, from holding himself out as the owner of the letters, from publishing any of the letters, or holding himself out as having the authority to negotiate their sale or publication. The application to the Judge was brought by Sheppard’s, who claim that Mr. O’Neill took photographs of the letters and provided the photographs to the Boston Globe newspaper for publication. The duration of the interim injunction was extended yesterday pending the hearing of Sheppard’s interlocutory application on Thursday 29 May 2014.

Although All Hallows will argue strongly that it is the rightful owner of the letters and so it can auction them, it does not have power to give an unrestricted right to use the letters. Given the private nature of the late Mrs. Kennedy, and the improbability that anyone prepared to pay over €1 million for 30 letters merely wishes to lock them away in their own private collection, it is possible that further legal battles in relation to the use of the letters may lie ahead. Regardless of the outcome, the world will be tuning in on 10 June with interest.

Contact our Intellectual Property Department for further information 

Anne Bateman
Ann Henry
Karen Gallagher


Anne Bateman