Susan Spann returns to Writers in the Storm with a new series to help you think about planning for the long-range future of your estate. In this series she'll give us practical, easy-to-follow suggestions about protecting your intellectual property.
by Susan Spann
In the spring, a young man’s fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of love, but (with apologies to Tennyson) this spring my guest posts here at Writers in the Storm will take a slightly more serious tone.
It’s time to face the reaper – or, more specifically, what happens to your copyrights (and other intellectual property) when you’re gone.
And I don’t mean on a book tour.
Intellectual property rights – including copyrights – survive their creators. Under U.S. law, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years (and copyright term is the same for unpublished works as it is for published ones).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 and other intellectual property owned at the time of the author’s death.
Most authors give plenty of thought to managing copyrights during their lifetimes, but little or none to what happens ... after.
This spring, we’ll take an in-depth look at creating an estate plan that handles the “who, what, when, and how” of managing your copyrights after your death.
The estate planning process, for authors, contains four separate steps. In the months to come, we’ll look at each one in depth and give you the tools you need to create and implement a plan that works for you.
Step 1: Create an estate plan. You can do this yourself or hire an attorney, but a good estate plan generally requires either a will or a trust. Many states allow handwritten wills – called holographic wills – and next month’s installment of this series will talk about the differences between the various options.
Step 2: Make sure the estate plan includes specific references to administration of your copyrighted works. The language may vary (and we’ll look at specific examples to help you draft it), 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. The choice is yours. Just remember: anything you don’t deal with specifically usually passes by operation of law to the person who receives the “residuary” or remainder of your estate. Confused? Don’t worry. We’ll take a look at what that means and explain the legalese.
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. Again, don’t worry if this sounds confusing now – it won’t be by the time this series ends.
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 where they’re currently offered for sale, but your heirs won’t necessarily know. In many cases, they won’t even know where to look for that information. Makes lists of all your copyrights and important contacts, and keep those lists with your will or trust.
And remember: If you have no written estate plan, the law creates one for you – whether you know it or not. Don’t let the government control who gets your copyrights – and don’t risk letting your intellectual property pass to people you didn’t intend.
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? Click into the comments and let me know!
Susan Spann is a publishing attorney and author from Sacramento, California. Her debut mystery novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Thomas Dunne Books, July 2013), is the first in a series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. Susan blogs about writing, publishing law and seahorses at http://www.SusanSpann.com. Find her on Twitter @SusanSpann or on Facebook.
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