An interesting article in the NYTimes about plagiarism charges against historical fiction authors includes a letter from Thomas Pynchon.
Basically, he says that historical fiction writers try to be accurate, so much of their source material could be woven into the fiction. Quite a few authors stepped up to defend the accused author, Ian McEwan, from plagiarism charges. As I get more and more interested in historical fiction, it seems this could be an issue as the internet now makes it so easy to find other people’s memoirs, historical documents, etc etc.
Sometimes you cannot contact the author, or say, for instance you are reading old war letters – how do you track down the writer to ask permission? Or does the copyright belong to the person who posted them on their website? What if they plagiarized? Or if it was their great-grandfather’s letters?
Here is a link to an explanation of the US government’s copyright law: