Tag Archives: author

What happens when a writer dies?

The writer - a floral tributeThis is not a spiritual question, nor is it a particularly physical one (with answers involving worms, combustion or large quantities of formaldehyde).  Nevertheless, it is a very practical matter.

Our society believes that death should not prevent writers from benefitting from the fruits of their labours.  We express this belief through copyright law which generally holds that copyright persists for 70 years after the writer’s death and that the estate of a deceased writer is entitled to any royalties that accrue during that time.  So, how is this managed?

There are two issues: who gets the royalties and how the royalties reach them.  In both cases, the writer needs to take some ante mortem action.

Where there’s a Will

A deceased writer’s royalties are part of the estate and are therefore disbursed according to the writer’s Last Will and Testament.  If the writer dies intestate, then the (residual) estate is divided amongst relatives of the deceased according to a standard formula.  (The formula varies between countries.)  Royalties are split in the same way as the rest of the estate.  (This may be simple, if everything goes to the spouse of the deceased, or it may be hideously complicated.)  So, the first piece of advice is that if your legacy is likely to be at all complex, then don’t put it off: make a Will.

By itself, a Will may not be enough.  A Will deals with the division of the deceased’s estate.  However, the literary estate may be a special case – for example, what happens if, five years after the author’s death, there’s an approach about making a film (or other derivative) of a work?  If the estate is divided amongst multiple legatees, who is entitled to make decisions about literary properties?

The solution to this is to appoint a literary executor; someone with the right and responsibility to make decisions about that part of the author’s legacy.  (Neil Gaiman is a very strong advocate of this procedure, and his on-line journal offers some very practical help.)  Even then, it may not be that simple.  That legacy lasts for 70 years; what happens if the literary executor doesn’t last that long?  If the work has a particularly long shelf life, does the writer need a literary line of succession?

Spill the beans before kicking the bucket

So you’ve appointed a literary executor?  Well done.  Now, how does he or she know what you have written and where it has been published?

In the simple, traditional literary mainstream, authors have literary agents who can be expected to know the state of play with all the writer’s works and hold copies of contracts.  But life isn’t always that simple; take playwrights (my particular cure).  Typically playwrights make direct approaches to specialist publishers rather than working through a literary agent.  Some playwrights have works with several different publishers.  Then there’s the whole business of self-publishing – which, typically, means that the writer has a contract with an on-line retailer who handles distribution of specific editions of particular works.  The literary executor needs to know about all those things.  Somehow, the writer needs to communicate to the literary executor.  It would take a pretty determined spiritualist to advocate leaving this until after death.  Somewhere, you need to leave the poor sap a complete list covering all the works and all the deals.

Who do you think you are?

Many writers use pseudonyms for some or all of their works.  From the point of view of your literary estate, your Will does not need to list your works and the names under which they are published (in the same way that it doesn’t list your bank accounts), but your executors do need to be able to trace that information.  You know that metal box where you keep all your important documents – your bank account details, investments, insurance policies and the like?  Well it would be a good idea to keep something in there about your literary works.  This could be copies of the (relevant bits of) correspondence with publishers, or it could be a simple list of title, published name and publisher.

The important thing about pseudonyms is that there should be evidence linking the pseudonym to the real name of the author.  What the author needs to do is to point the executor in the right direction.

Execution

So what does your literary executor need to do?  It’s a matter of giving instructions to the businesses that handle your works.  At their simplest, these instructions would be about where to pay the royalties.  Giving the instructions gets a bit more complicated when the executor is dealing with an on-line self-publishing retailer (because the author has an account with the on-line business, and the account needs to be changed or replaced), but the principles are exactly the same.  (I was discussing this point with Damian Trasler and he got in touch with a couple of eBook self-publishing companies to check the processes they had in place.  One of the responses included the slightly disturbing phrase “I recognize it’s inevitable for most individuals…”  This led Damian to observe that tracts of “undead” literature must be written from personal experience.)

The publisher (or eBook retailer) needs to be told that the writer has died and that the executor has been granted the right to deal with the estate.  Depending on the sums in question, the publisher may require evidence (of the death and of the executor’s rights).  This is the same as for financial institutions, and there are standard forms (death certificates and grants of probate) which will demonstrate legal proof if required.

And that’s it.  It’s a reasonably straightforward process, provided that the author has sorted out the information ahead of time.  From my (publisher’s) viewpoint, it’s much better to get an e-mail from an executor, than to have a royalty check returned with a message: “He’s no longer with us.   He didn’t leave a forwarding address, but he’s gone to one of two places.”

They Want it How Long?

The Green Party and Copyright

There has been a small hoo-hah in the political wing of the literary community about a policy of the (British) Green Party.  Their 2015 manifesto is vague on the point, but their party policy  says

Specifically we will
a. […]
b. 
introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years;

It’s that 14 years that is getting people hot under the collar.  For the purposes of this post, I shall assume that they really mean (as their policy implies) 14 years from the creation of a work of art to the expiration of copyright.

Now, it is possible to take a position that there should be no copyright whatsoever.  If you want to take that position, then I’m not going to argue with you. Instead I shall send you to Joanne Harris’s blog  and she will tell you why you are wrong.  No, the issue for this post is how long copyright should last.

Sonny Bono
Sonny Bono – from singing hippy to conservative senator

Under current British and most international law, copyright persists for 70 years after the death of the author (or the last surviving creator, for collaborative works).  American law is more complex, in particular due to the Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension act, which extended the copyright on corporate works to 120 years from the date of creation or 95 years from the date of publication, whichever is earlier.  For simplicity, let’s assume the current law is life plus 70 years.

When a work is in copyright, the copyright holder (usually the author working through a literary agent or publisher) has the right to say what can (and what cannot) be done with the work.  Through that right, the author is entitled to financial benefit from the work.  When copyright expires, the work enters the public domain.  That means that there is no restriction on the work – anyone can do what they like with it.  Derivative works can be created without the permission of the author; plays can be staged without the need to pay royalties.  The author (or, in the case of current copyright law, the author’s literary estate) derives no further income from the work.

So, is the Green Party’s 14 years enough to achieve that financial benefit?  The aim of the Green Party’s policy is to promote creativity (implicitly through the adaptation and reuse of works whose copyright has expired).  I would argue that it would have the opposite effect.
In the past few weeks, my theatrical excursions have included productions of Chess (copyright 1986), The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Barefoot in the Park (1963) and A Bedfull of Foreigners (1973).  All of those (and all of their contemporaries) would be out-of-copyright under a 14-year term.  If you consider this from the point of view of a producing company (most of whom operate on very thin margins), then if the choice is between paying royalties for a ten-year-old script or no royalties for one five years older, then for the most part, the older work will win.  So where’s the incentive to create new work?  There will be some arts bodies sponsoring new works, but otherwise, where will playwrights gain an income?  Who is going to pay authors for new work when they can get fairly recent work free of charge?  This will lead to playwrights working for nothing as the only way to get their works to the stage.  And, since publishers will not be able to achieve a return, few works will get published.

On the other hand, what’s the point of life-plus-70-years?  Copyright for the author’s lifetime is reasonably easy to justify – royalty income as a long slow trickle, in lieu of a pension – but why 70 years beyond that?  This seems to derive from the idea of a single-earner household, in which the author dies young (it used to be tuberculosis) and his widow (because all writers are men married to housewives) has to subsist on his royalty income for the rest of her life.  With modern lifespans and working patterns, this is nonsense.  A writer creating a magnum opus at thirty might get fifty years of royalty income which then benefits the literary estate for a further seventy years.  Get your own jobs, you bunch of slackers!

A case can of course, be made for supporting real dependents (generally minors) after the premature death of a writer, but I would argue that this should only last for their minority; after that, they can get proper jobs, just like anyone else.  (Proper jobs, of course, include the paid creation of new artistic works.)  That argument creates legal complexity (how do you know whether or not a work is in copyright because it is supporting dependents?)  To simplify, I would suggest a copyright duration of (say) 30 years or the life of the author, whichever was longer.

(Disclaimer: as a publisher, I administer copyright on behalf of authors, including a small number of deceased playwrights.  I should therefore stress that I shall continue to uphold the current law, even though I disagree with it!  There are a few more notes about copyright here.)

Political Afterthought

Whilst my main purpose was to discuss the logic of this single issue, there is also an interesting political consideration in that some writers wanted to dismiss the Green Party and all its works over just this one issue.  This strikes me as odd.  All political parties offer baskets of policies and generally it will be difficult to find a party whose every policy you agree with.  On the other hand, as a member of the electorate, you may have some issues that are red lines for you, and would stop you voting for a party that took a particular position.  That’s fine, except that if you are considering voting for smaller parties, it is most unlikely that they will get a majority of seats; whilst they may have an influence on policy, they will be unlikely to be able to implement their whole manifesto.

My point here is not to encourage people to support (or dismiss) any particular party.  My point is that the decision needs to be thought through.

The Ultimate Question

Why?(To which the answer is not  42)

Some visitors to Damian Trasler’s blog have arrived there as a result of existential searches.  Damian found the following inbound search terms in the blog’s data log:-

lazy bee scripts/why
why/lazy bee scripts

I have no idea whether or not the searcher (I assume this was one person, although the first search term cropped-up twice) found the answer, not least because I’m not sure what the question means.  It could be

Why should I buy something from Lazy Bee Scripts? Or
Why is there a company called Lazy Bee Scripts? Or
Why did Damian Trasler choose Lazy Bee Scripts as a publisher? Or possibly
Why should I choose Lazy Bee Scripts as a publisher?

The answer to the first one is simple: we’re offering something that really appeals to you at a price you can afford.  Go ahead and buy it.  (Go on, you know you want to.  It’s only a few clicks away.)

The second question is about company history and how the name came about.  Maybe another day…

The third and fourth questions are questions about value proposition: what is the value of Lazy Bee Scripts to an author?
The Lazy Bee Scripts web site demonstrates what we do for authors (we sell their scripts and collect performance royalties).  There’s also plenty of information on the publishing pages of the site about the way we go about it.  What we don’t have on the web site is a simple statement of our value proposition to authors.
We don’t tell playwrights why they should use our services because, in my view, that’s putting the question the wrong way round.  I’m very happy to tell you about our service, but I don’t want to tell you that you need it, because maybe you don’t.  We’ve been publishing Damian’s scripts for around ten years – so it would be fair to assume that our services suit his needs – but only Damian can answer why that is.  So, in my view, instead of asking someone else Why Lazy Bee Scripts?, the questions for the writer should be “what do I want from a publisher?” and “which publisher comes closest to offering it?”

Sometimes “Why?” is a question you have to answer for yourself.