who owns a copyright

If the inside of a book has the copyright to an author that is dead, I assume the family most likely has the copyright. However, how do you determine this, ask the publisher? If so, why doesn’t the publisher just list who has the copyright, as opposed to who did have it when long deceased?

Also, what does it mean that a copyright is in the hand of So-and-so’s estate? Is that a trust managed by the family or for the family as a group?

Don’t know the answer to this one. Perhaps an estate lawyer will turn up to answer this part.


A copyright is property. It can be given away, sold or bequeathed at death.

The publisher of the book in question must know what agent is handling this copyright. Perhaps you could drop them a line?

Barring oddities of law such as dower and curtesy, title to what you own passes to your estate at your death, and then is distributed to your heirs, assigns, legatees, remaindermen, and related beneficiaries-of-your-estate. (A lawyer might want to explain the difference between these categories, which are clear as mud to this informed layman. :))

In modern law, there is no true difference between the disposal by estate of real property, personal property, and intellectual property. If I own a house, a car, thousand shares of stock, and the copyright to my book, they are all forms of property which I can leave to people in my will – presuming that my will conforms to my state’s laws concerning mandatory inheritance (e.g., I could not completely disinherit my wife in North Carolina, even if I should have some desire to do so).

Before his death, Robert Heinlein placed title to all his books in the Robert and Virginia Heinlein Trust, which was controlled by Virginia during her widowhood and IIRC passed to the Heinlein Society on her death. That trust controls the copyright on his publications now, and will until they expire.

If you die without a will or surviving spouse, would the court grant the copyright to your book to one heir out of, let’s say, several children? The value would be hard to measure if it has many years of copyright still on it.

In anycase, I’m still wondering why they don’t put the proper copyrightholder’s name in a book being reprinted after the original author (and copyright holder – one word or two?? :dubious: ) has started pushing up daisies.

Two words, definitely. It passes, like any other property, according to the jurisdiction’s intestacy laws – in New York, for example, one-third to surviving spouse if any and the remainder divided equally among surviving children. In the case of intangibles like this, I believe it’s customary to keep the estate in existence and distribute the proceeds according to the will or the intestacy provisions.

In answer to your second question, a copyright is taken out or claimed by the producer of the material, and the date when he or she did that is important to the information. So a book written by JFK Jr. in 1994 would be listed as “Copyright (c) 1994 by John F. Kennedy Jr.” even if published today. Elsewhere on the copyright page, often just after the copyright notice, one will usually find the appropriate contact to arrange for rights to reprint, quote, etc. That notice in full might read “Copyright (c) 1994 by John F. Kennedy Jr. Title to this copyright is held by the Kennedy Family Trust, P.O. Box 1, Hyannisport, MA 01945” or whatever the appropriate information would be.

Thanks, very thorough. So if the book generates $5,000 a year in royalties, a lawyer will be paid perhaps annually or by percentage, to hold the money and disburse it? If it is held for several children, who perhaps don’t get along, how is the use of the copyright decided. Let’s say for licsensing or movie rights?

Someone who deals in this regularly can provide clearer answers, but I think your second sentence is pretty much on target.

Approval of rights use is done by a quite separate person from the beneficiaries, called the “literary executor” – who is often one of the beneficiaries but not always. Christopher Tolkien, for example, was his father’s literary executor, and he made the decisions about publishing and other rights (movie rights had been sold prior to J.R.R.'s death, in this case, but otherwise he would have had the right to approve or disapprove New Line Cinema’s contract and retain or cede whatever degree of creative control he felt appropriate). The intelligent author, artist, etc., names a literary executor whom he feels can be trusted to carry out his wishes and intent in the management of his creative legacy.