Leaving a Literal Legacy

Today’s Wednesday post deals with a topic of great importance to authors:

How to to address intellectual property rights in your will or trust.

Intellectual property rights – including an author’s copyrights in his or her works – survive the author’s death. Under U.S. law, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years –  the term is the same for unpublished works as it is for published ones.

Every author needs an estate plan, including a properly drafted will or trust, which addresses and disposes of copyrights held at the author’s death.

Step 1 Create an estate plan. You can do this yourself or hire an attorney to do it for you, but a good estate plan requires a writing and generally means either a will or a trust. Many states allow handwritten wills – called holographic wills – provided the will complies with certain legal requirements.

Step 2: Make sure the estate plan includes specific references to your copyrighted works. The specific language may vary, but you need a provision bequeathing all of your intellectual property rights (“including without limitation all copyrights and copyrighted works”) to the person you want to own those rights after your death.

You can grant the rights as a unit or split them up – to one person or to several. The choice is yours. Just remember: anything you don’t grant specifically will pass by operation of law to the person who receives the “residuary” or remainder of your estate.

Step 3: Include language authorizing your executor (or trustee) to execute any necessary assignments of rights to ensure your heirs have documented rights to control your copyrights. Although the law of most states grants executors this right by default, it’s easier (and faster) if your estate plan is specific on this point.

Step 4: Assemble a list of all your copyrighted works and contact information for publishers, agents, etc. You may know who published your novels, or (for independent authors) where they’re currently offered for sale – but your heirs won’t necessarily know where to look for that information. Keep lists of all your copyrights and important contacts with your estate plan.

And remember: If you have no written estate plan, everything passes to your legal heirs – usually either your spouse, your children or your parents and siblings, depending on the state. Don’t take the risk of your copyrights falling into the wrong hands. Create an estate plan, make lists, and keep everything together so your heirs don’t have to look for it after you’re gone.

A little extra work today can translate to benefits – and peace of mind – later on.

Do you have an estate plan? If you’re an author, does it mention your copyrights? Do you have any other questions about copyright law and publishing? Click into the comments and let me know!