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We are pretty used to read private letters of important and less important people who lived in a distant past: for example we can read the quite explicit letters that Mozart wrote to his wife and love letters written on birch by somebody in Novgorod.

Given that those who wrote these letters are long gone, their privacy is not really a concern. Their writings, where applicable, can be considered public domain.

Now, coming to my problem: in a world where some individuals are immortal and disguise it by periodically changing name and place where they live, how can they ensure that their writings and drawings, be them public or private, do not end up exposed in some museums or library for the general public to read them?

For one they don't like being exposed to the public eye in that way, and it can also happen that some inquisitive mind notices the remarkable stylistic proximity of several letters written in the span of various centuries.

  • Technology-wise these immortals operate in a world which has reached at most the equivalent of our 1940, so no no digital or electronic mass storage of data.
  • While they live in a certain place as Mr/Ms X, they cannot totally avoid interaction with mortals, including romantic affairs. They can sporadically live in total isolation, but not for more than a couple decades per century (eternity is very boring to spend alone)
  • The less other people are involved in supporting their "leave no traces behind", the better.
  • preferably no magic involved
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    $\begingroup$ If you are immortal, you can do what you like to anybody who violates your "rights" with no consequences to you. Smart humans soon get the message not to mess with you. Stupid ones don't live long anyway. Look at the stories of ancient Gods to see hundreds of examples. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Aug 27, 2021 at 21:14
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    $\begingroup$ Don't give your personal letters to museums. How do you think museums get this material? descendants give it to them $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 28, 2021 at 5:25
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    $\begingroup$ "the DMCA has no redeeming value. It has caused a lot of damage to speech, competition, innovation, and fair use." - if the thing you're talking about could exist, then there wouldn't be entire corporations focused solely on enforcing the DMCA. Without the need of which, the world would be worse for it. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Aug 28, 2021 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ Their style won't remain the same if they actually live in society. True, after a phase of self isolation they might be weird, but they'd cath up pretty quickly if they tried $\endgroup$
    – Hobbamok
    Aug 30, 2021 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ Your writing style will change over several centuries of existence. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Aug 30, 2021 at 11:37

9 Answers 9

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They testament it to themselves

Heirlooms are not subject to copyright. As physical objects, they will remain with the estate.

An immortal will simply set themselves up as the trustee of the estate, or testament the estate in its entirety to their new identity, and — as such — make sure that the heirlooms remain within the estate. Their new identity will then be the "new" owner of their property, and as such it cannot be appropriated by anyone else against their will.

As for creations that are not physical — and where copyright might apply, such as works of music — well, that depends entirely on how copyright actually works in this fictional world of yours. In this present world that we live in, copyright expires on — or some time after — the death of the original copyright holder, and that would be a problem for your Immortals.

However, there is an easy way around it: you can simply define copyright law in your fictional world differently, such as — to alleviate the problem of important works being lost due to copyright never expiring — forcing estates that owns a copyright to license such works periodically to retain the copyright, or else it expires.

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    $\begingroup$ The US copyright system used to work as you describe (except it still had an overall limit to the term), but it was called renewing copyright, not "licensing." Licensing is a different concept altogether. $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Aug 27, 2021 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ I know. I am not talking about current US copyright, I am talking about a fictional system. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Aug 30, 2021 at 9:37
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Obfuscate, Annihilate, Imitate:

It will take great deliberateness to eliminate any evidence of an immortal. They will need to take a variety of steps to erase any evidence of their presence.

  • Get a secretary: If the works and letters themselves are written by another hand, the handwriting cannot match. Have your immortal hire a personal secretary to write their works. You can't match handwriting if you don't handwrite.
  • Destroy the evidence: If you burn all copies of anything you write, then there is no evidence of your presence. Destroy entire libraries if needed - history shows they are easy enough to destroy. It does mean it is very difficult to leave a record, but your goal here is NOT to leave a record.
  • Work by proxy: Maybe Galileo was an ordinary idiot, and didn't know one end of a telescope from another. But if an immortal wants to leave no record of themselves yet still leave a legacy, then a proxy given credit would keep attention off the immortal while leaving their works intact.
  • Be artificial: In the renaissance, calling someone artificial was a compliment. It meant you controlled yourself well and presented only that part of yourself you wanted people to see. If each incarnation affects a deliberate and conscious style different from the true self, the record of the person won't reflect themselves, but the person they portray (like an actor).
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  • $\begingroup$ A few cents that may corroborate your ideas: Tommaso Masini may have made Da Vinci his "secretary/proxy" according to some reports; the Library of Alexandria supposedly contained pre-history works; artificial in etymonline: from stem of ars "art" + -fex "maker," from facere "to do, make". $\endgroup$
    – CPHPython
    Aug 27, 2021 at 20:49
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As noted in the comments, copyright and privacy (secrecy) are two different things.

Copyright is a legal concept and a relatively new one (the first laws appeared only in the mid-17th century). Copyright establishes legal ownership of intellectual property and exclusive copying rights. However, copyright does not guarantee that one's works will not be copied and distributed illegally.

It might be dangerous for immortals to lobby for laws that grant intellectual property rights with no expiration date. This could attract unwanted attention and expose immortals to the general public. It might be better to keep a low profile and treat intellectual property as something that has limited earning potential. Immortals, especially those born a long time ago, should understand the fleeting nature of the world and prioritise non-exposure over profits.

As many other answers state privacy/secrecy can be achieved by either producing no works, or their destruction, or the use of perishables in their creation. This should work for many immortals. However, if an immortal desires to leave their legacy, one of the possible solutions is establishing a school, i.e. gathering a group of people that use the same style and share the same philosophy.

Historically, many workshops followed the same style and trained apprentices in it. Even contemporary art historians with their advanced techniques and equipment have a hard time distinguishing between works of individuals belonging to the same workshop or style school. Individuality tends to appear only when very talented apprentices mature and develop their own interpretation of the style. However, if works are finished collectively this individual style can be barely noticeable or even disappear completely.

It is expected for apprentices of a school to imitate works of their predecessors and have the same style. So, it will not raise any flags if an immortal keeps producing works over a long time using the same style if they pose as a member of the school.

It is also worth mentioning that artistic styles are not static. They evolve and change over time. Some artists have well-defined periods in their artistic careers, where they use rather distinct styles and approaches. It is hard to imagine that immortals will be different in this regard. As time changes, as they accumulate more experience, as new technologies develop, immortal artists will change as well. Their styles will undergo transformations. If the changes are significant enough it would not be possible to establish that all works belong to the same person based on the works alone.

Today we establish authorship of as many works as possible, determine elements common to all of them, and only then attempt to attribute authorship to works of unknown or disputed origin. Working backwards from works to the immortal author, especially when the existence of immortals is unknown and style school is known, is almost impossible. The most likely conclusion will be that later generations produced apprentices highly skilled at imitating the original style.

Writing may pose a slight problem, though. Penmanship is affected to at least some degree by our genetics and is very habitual, so a paranoid immortal would need to make a conscious effort to change their handwriting style and habits every time they change their identity. It should be noted that different writing systems develop different handwriting habits. So, it is also likely that an immortal's penmanship will change naturally as they learn new languages and new writing systems. The effect will be significantly reduced as they grow older, though.

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    $\begingroup$ For an immortal, current US copyrights actually don't have an expiration date. It's for the life of the author plus 70 years. Of course that's hard to prove if you've faked your death :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 28, 2021 at 0:25
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Good catch. But if an immortal insists that they are the same person as the original author from 200 years ago, wouldn't it be counterproductive? Even if they use lawyers, the very fact that some works from centuries ago are still copyrighted will attract the attention of journalists and other lawyers. IMO, the only two ways to deal with this are 1) announce the existence of immortals or 2) lobby for copyrights with no expiration date. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Aug 28, 2021 at 0:42
  • $\begingroup$ I had considered adding something about a school or apprentices, but you had already come out with your answer. Great way to make your own works look derivative! +1 $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 30, 2021 at 12:20
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The same way mortals do it

Eliza Hamilton was a modest, self-effacing woman who apparently destroyed her own letters and tried to expunge her presence from the history books (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow)

Mortals have the very real problem of maintaining privacy. Immortals would have the same issues and would use the same approaches. You can use protected communications channels (Hillary Clinton, Ivanka Trump), rely on trusted recipients who won't share your communications (Mark Twain), expose the most embarrassing things you've done before other people can do it (Jeff Bezos), never write anything down (Donald Trump), etc.

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    $\begingroup$ Didn't work so well since we're talking about her right now, eh? $\endgroup$ Aug 30, 2021 at 13:32
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Ephemeral art

Use materials that won't last. Some buddhist monks will make very elaborate mandalas with colored sand, just to blow the sand away when those are done. In Tibet they even make butter sculptures which melt a few hours later.

Your artists could use very fragile paper that crumbles to dust in short time and ink that fades fast. Once you receive a letter, you've got a few days to read it and then it's gone.

Or use a pencil. In this case the text might last a few years. In any case use light strokes so the text cannot be inferred by the marks on the paper.

Drawings can be made with food material (milk, ketchup, soy sauce) that will spoil within days. It will be beautiful when finished, but insects and rats will overtake it after a few days. Even if someone wishes to preserve it behind glass it may be difficult.

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    $\begingroup$ One correction and one addition. Correction: almost all inks evaporate fast, otherwise, they smudge pretty badly - the ink needs to fade (i.e. lose color) fast in the case you proposed. Addition: another, more mundane solution is to use a pencil. The modern pencil was invented in the 18th century and fades relatively fast (a few years) $\endgroup$ Aug 30, 2021 at 8:30
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    $\begingroup$ @JulianaKarasawaSouza thank you, I have added these to my answer. $\endgroup$ Aug 30, 2021 at 10:16
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Corporations Are People My Friend

Just set up a corp that owns the copyright. They can fund it with their immortal wealth and control how it works and lobby politicians to extend their copyrights, without being directly exposed.

If they want to hide a document, they can just have the corporation hide anything they make. So long as they hire trustworthy people this should work fine.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Just set up a corp that owns the copyright" that wouldn't help, all extant copyright laws would still run out, copyright for literature & films which would seem most appropriate in the case given, in the UK that's 70 years after the death of the author regardless of who the rights may or may not have been passed to in the interim, to take advantage of that & have indefinite copyright they would (eventually) have to go public as being immortal (which I'd guess the OP wants to avoid) & if they did I'm more than sure all copyright law would be re-written to prevent indefinite copyright. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Aug 27, 2021 at 12:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Pelinore it used to be 50 years in some countries, got upped to 70+ due to heavy lobbying by companies such as Warner and Disney. Otherwise Mickey would fall into public domain around 2014. $\endgroup$ Aug 27, 2021 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ True, there is a workaround some have used to keep copyright on the characters (with varying success given fair use laws), have a sequel ghost written using the same characters then you get 'some' copyright protection extending from that new work, but again that's probably not helpful to the OP as it seems he wants to keep the stuff out of the public domain // @TheSquare-CubeLaw ^ $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Aug 27, 2021 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ "probably not helpful to the OP as it seems he wants to keep the stuff out of the public domain" which is (probably?) the biggest problem with this idea, to get the protection of copyright law the material likely has to be published in the first place? $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Aug 27, 2021 at 12:29
  • $\begingroup$ They said private or public. I added that they could also have the corporation have a lockbox to store their private documents. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Aug 27, 2021 at 12:32
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Private Works are Easy
You draw a distinction between writings and drawings that are "public" and others that are "private". Keeping private documents private is simple. Your immortal will in some way own or control a piece of property upon which is constructed a secure building with a hefty vault. Perhaps in the crypt of a church or even a monument in a park or cemetery. Immortal stashes private papers in the vault. Without access, no one else can get at them to publish them. Papers she wants access to she will keep in her home.

Keeping her private life private and low key will be the way to go. The obvious downside would be robbery of the vault's contents or loss of access to said contents. If she doesn't have the key anymore, she can't get in!

Public Works are Not too Difficult
In a sense, this one is even easier. Your immortal will simply write nothing and draw nothing -- of any consequence -- for public consumption. Your immortal will simply have to be very careful about what she doodles on napkins in restaurants (doodles and notes can indeed become very famous and valuable); and she will have to ensure that nothing of consequence ever gets written or drawn that is traceable to her. The difficulties lie in her own ability to keep her valuable works private.

Public documents like credit card slips, receipts, business documents and various ephemera of that sort can be prevented by contracting all transactions through her corporation.

No Works is Optimal
Less is best. The best option for an immortal to keep writings and drawings away from public scrutiny is to simply keep nothing for the public to scrute. If she's old enough, she probably didn't know how to write for the first thousands of years of her life, so the issue would be moot. She would have to develop a good memory and keep her stories and her secret vice to herself.

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you are worried about nothing.

Just don't give your works away, historic material does not magically teleport to museums. People who own them give them to museums, usually descendants of the author. Unless your immortals make it a habit of donating their work to museums or selling works of art, there really is no issue. even if a few letters make it to museums it will mean nothing, writing styles are not something at can be compared with individual levels of accuracy, nor would they remain static they change over a persons life. People can't even agree on what Shakespeare wrote despite having ample examples of his writing.

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I assume, that you are regularry changing identity (like each 20-50 years - you have to age at the same pace as people around you and if you cannot magically modify yourself, this is how far you can safely go by mundane means), ideally let the old you "die" in an accindent or so to be surely dead, not just missing (still some beleive that Elvis Pressley is alive somewhere else, so he cannot safely re-use his older look and style). That is like 3 identities per century.

Your biggest enemy are ofcource you, as you want to keep some your writings (or writings from your love, or picture or so) and so you came your own bigger museum and you must keep that hidden for all cost. (And you cannot just burn it all, as you need at least something like diary, to remember, who were your enemies, where are dangerous informations about you, where you was too notorius etc. etc.).

Next one are your letters to personal friends/loves, which you gave away - would be wise time to time show your love, that you still keep ALL her letters in one box (and draw her/him to do similar) so you can later easy collect the letters back be it by yourself or by hired burglar, burning donw the whole building or any other means.

The same problem goes for records about you - your friends may draw your pictures, write letters about you to other people, write diaries, all that describing you, sometimes in good details.

Then there are already public materials, like street photo/picture, where you are included, press writing about you, official records (but those are more about your money, houses, nationales etc, so less directly incriminating).

And being immortal, you became too good in some areas, as you have experiences from many lifes. If you would do the same (not recomended), you are too proficient in it ater few centuries of practising it. Doing different things you are skilled in too much areas, which is also hard to hide consistently. So prepare to be little outstanding in each new incarnation - and so more probably noted more than average person - this include more journalist/historican/influent people coverage.

So best you can do is make your personal museum minimalistic and good guarded, burning everything you do not necessery need.

Also the clothes and style changes relatively fast (historicians can from picture/description tell time of origin to like +/- 20 years correct) and there are few different ways at each time, so you will use very distinctive style for one incarnation and totally different for the next one - if you will be portrayed anyway (in pictures or in writings), let it be more about your clothes and extravagacies, then from you are under it. Clothes make a person and it is possible to make so specific impression, that changes to other style nobody would recognise you. (lol, I made it to my wife, I changed and came at her workplace just to be send away by her, cause "there is already after closing time". We where face to face at that moment :) )

What also helps is to make sometimes pause between incarnations (take few years time away), while let other two incarnations overlap - live somewhere as aging and slowing person, many times too lazy/tired to leave house for days, while you make appereance at other place as very active young person - your next incarnation - it would mix your trace.

There will sadly anyway would be some your personal records, but it would be extremely hard to connect them to the same person. So even when there may be here and there some your intimate letter at some museum for everyone to read, nobody would connect it to your other incarnations, mainly the current one.

And you can arrange "dissappearing" of many such letters over years in unrelated cases - like robbing the museum of some special exponates, while making mess all around and let few letters and other small items to be lost too - you do not want to make impression, that only one letter (colection of letters) was stolen - this would make many questions and maybe copies would be studied. But robing it for some historical armor and weapons, or kings crown, or famous jewelry and leave big collateral would give press item to talk about (the main target like jewelry) and ommit all the small collaterals as "and many more priceless items was lost or destroyed" and even if somebody would try make connection, then it would be hard to say, what was really important for you.

Also you need to decide, what is really bothering you (to be deaply personal or too much revealing) and what is better to just leave as not so important (as you do not want to do too many risky moves and leave too many indicies, to someone realize, that ALL letters from THIS and THET person was stolen nearly simulately and start to ask about THOSE personas)

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