Who Owns the Copyright to a Book After Someone Dies?
In most countries, a work is protected during the author’s lifetime and after their death their heirs inherit the copyright. In general, the rights last for approximately 70 years after the death of the author before falling into the public domain.
A copyright may also be conveyed by operation of law and may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession. If the will didn't specify rights to the book, then it may fall into the residuary estate and be distributed according to the residuary clause in the will.
Residuary estate is a term used in probate law to refer to the part of a deceased's estate that remains after all specific gifts and bequests have been made and all claims satisfied. A will often contains a residuary clause that gives a residuary legatee the right to all property of the deceased not otherwise disposed of. The following is an example, among others, of a residuary clause in a will:
"I will, devise, bequeath and give all the rest and remainder of my property and estate of every kind and character, including, but not limited to, real and personal property in which I may have an interest at the date of my death and which is not otherwise effectively disposed of, to ..."
The following is from the U.S. Copright Office:
Works Originally Created on or after January 1, 1978
A work that was created (fixed in tangible form for the first
time) on or after January 1, 1978, is automatically protected
from the moment of its creation and is ordinarily given a
term enduring for the author’s life plus an additional 70
years after the author’s death. In the case of “a joint work
prepared by two or more authors who did not work for hire,”
the term lasts for 70 years after the last surviving author’s
death. For works made for hire, and for anonymous and
pseudonymous works (unless the author’s identity is revealed
in Copyright Office records), the duration of copyright will
be 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation,
whichever is shorter.
Works Originally Created Before January 1, 1978,
But Not Published or Registered by That Date
These works have been automatically brought under the
and are now given federal copyright protection. The
duration of copyright in these works is generally computed
in the same way as for works created on or after January 1,
1978: the life-plus-70 or 95/120-year terms apply to them
as well. The law provides that in no case would the term of
for works in this category expire before December
31, 2002, and for works published on or before December 31,
2002, the term of copyright will not expire before December
Works Originally Created and Published or Registered
before January 1, 1978
Under the law in effect before 1978, copyright was secured
either on the date a work was published with a copyright
notice or on the date of registration if the work was registered
in unpublished form. In either case, the copyright
endured for a first term of 28 years from the date it was
secured. During the last (28th) year of the first term, the
copyright was eligible for renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976
extended the renewal term from 28 to 47 years for copyrights
that were subsisting on January 1, 1978, or for pre-1978
copyrights restored under the Uruguay Round Agreements
Act (URAA), making these works eligible for a total term of
protection of 75 years. Public Law 105-298, enacted on October
27, 1998, further extended the renewal term of copyrights
still subsisting on that date by an additional 20 years, providing
for a renewal term of 67 years and a total term of protection
of 95 years.
Public Law 102-307, enacted on June 26, 1992, amended
the 1976 Copyright Act to provide for automatic renewal of
the term of copyrights secured between January 1, 1964, and
December 31, 1977. Although the renewal term is automatically
provided, the Copyright Office does not issue a renewal
certificate for these works unless a renewal application and
fee are received and registered in the Copyright Office.
Public Law 102-307 makes renewal registration optional.
Thus, filing for renewal registration is no longer required
to extend the original 28-year copyright term to the full 95
years. However, some benefits accrue to renewal registrations
that were made during the 28th year.
For more detailed information on renewal of copyright
and the copyright term, see Circular 15, Renewal of Copyright;
Circular 15a, Duration of Copyright; and Circular 15t, Extension
of Copyright Terms.