Just What Is A Literary Estate?

Among the property you own, you might count a house, a small business and the rights to your written work. And those rights — even if they aren’t to the Harry Potter novels — are worth something. Because your rights to your work (selling it, publishing it, etc.) are considered property, they are a part of your overall estate and comprise, in particular, your literary estate.

We may be talking about articles you’ve submitted to magazines, poems, novels or even screenplays. But no matter the form your writing has taken, it’s worth considering what will happen to it in the future. The word ‘estate’ may have been the giveaway that this post is focused on the extremely long-term, though issues regarding your literary estate may come into question during your life.

Considering a literary estate means considering some key legal issues, including who should benefit from and who is responsible for a writer’s work after his or her death. Because of the unique nature of a writer’s rights, the normal executor of an estate rarely is equipped to handle a literary estate. Copylaw has a great article about selecting a literary executor, but I’d like to point out some things that I’ve been thinking long and hard about.

Because I’ve been trying to build up a business based on writing, I’ve taken on some unusual projects and agreed to some fairly diverse rights arrangements. I know for a fact that a lawyer I could approach about the rest of my less-than-extensive estate probably wouldn’t know where to start with my literary estate. Even more complicated, I’ve been a bit lax about keeping track of certain rights — I have them written down in contracts and agreements, but I would need to create a central document to make any consideration of my literary estate easy.

I’m not dwelling on some far-off morbid day, though. I’m trying to make managing my projects simple — and having a plan to handle rights for my projects (and therefore my literary estate) makes a whole list of things easier, from defending my copyright to reselling pieces. Just chalk my interest in literary estates up to my penchant for emergency planning.

2 Comments

  1. Interesting thoughts. I think they key is determining what has enough value to be concerned about it and what has such temporary value that it isn’t worth spending your time concerned about.

    In some ways it seems like the value of literary estates are likely to be a lot less now than they were 100 years ago. The ease of publishing and sheer volume of what is being written seems lower the value of all but the finest works.

    However, coming up with a plan and process now to make things easier years down the road is very wise. A few years ago I sat down with my wife and recorded all the numbers anyone would need if something bad happened to us. It included life insurance policies, credit cards to cancel, retirement accounts, etc. It didn’t take too long, but if something were to happen it would save people days and weeks of time trying to dig through everything.

  2. thursday   •     Author

    While, admittedly, some literary estates don’t have a whole lot of value, being clear on what rights you have to your work is still important.

    Business affairs must be wound up: what if a writer has outstanding invoices and something happens? Most executors won’t know to pursue those invoices, but they are a necessity to settling a literary estate.

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