For works created after January 1, 1978, U.S. copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. (Corporate copyrights and anonymous works receive protection for 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first.)
This means that authors must plan for control of their copyrights after death – for published and unpublished works alike.
For this reason, all authors need an estate plan.
The good news – and also the bad news – is that you actually have an estate plan already, whether or not you’ve created one. The law of every country (and every U.S. state) provides for inheritance of property after death. Where the decedent (aka “the dead guy,” “the corpse,” or – in this case – THE AUTHOR) has a valid written will or trust, that estate plan takes precedence and the law instructs the decedent’s representative to distribute the property under the terms of the decedent’s written plan.
But if a person dies intestate (without a will or trust) the law takes care of the person’s estate then, too. The property passes to the decedent’s heirs at law, meaning the people who inherit where there is no will or trust under the “law of intestate succession.”
Bad puns and inappropriate jokes aside … this isn’t something you want to happen to you.
In most cases, your heirs at law will be your spouse, your children, your parents (if alive when you die), and/or your siblings – in that approximate order. But that’s not guaranteed. In some jurisdictions (and some cases in all jurisdictions), property escheats to the state – which means the state (or the government) inherits your property when you die.
Do you really want the government owning your copyrights?
I didn’t think so.
The take home lesson – write an estate plan now, and make sure it governs your copyrights. In the weeks to come, we’ll look at how to do that – with wills and trusts, and also how to select the heirs who will administer your copyrights after your death.
Because copyrights are a gift that keeps on giving, even after you’re gone – and you don’t want to accidentally give it away.
Have questions about copyright law? Estate plans for authors? Something else? Hop into the comments and let me know!