Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Selecting a Literary Executor

By Lloyd Jassin & Ronald M. Finkelstein

After you expire, your copyrights will live on for a very long time.  For works published before 1978, they will remain protected for 95 years from the date of first publication.  Works published after 1977 retain copyright protection for 70 years after the author dies.   A span of nearly three generations. 

This post deals with the intersection of death and creativity.  Specifically, the administration and exploitation of copyrighted works, letters, unpublished papers and contractual relations after you die. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Will
While during your life you may be able to play catch-up with legal formalities, unless you have a well-drafted will, or have created a valid trust (or both) for the benefit of others, you have left the ownership and care of your creative works and papers largely to chance. 

Clearly, the responsibility of finding a long-term, nurturing home for your copyrights, records and papers, should not be left for the last minute. What to do?  Ideally, authors should consider naming a "Literary Executor" in their will.  An "executor" is a person responsible for settling a deceased person's estate. Among the duties of a General Executor -- as opposed to Literary Executor -- are contacting an attorney to file a petition for probate of the will; collecting debts owed to the estate; filing for life insurance and other benefits; contacting an accountant (or attorney) to prepare the decedent's final income tax returns, a federal estate tax return and state estate and inheritance tax returns as may be required; and notifying the beneficiaries named in the will. 

A Literary Executor, as opposed to a General Executor, is the person selected for the limited purpose of managing your copyrights when you pass on.  One court described the Literary Executor's role as "requir[ing] a delicate balance between economic enhancement and cultural nurture." If you have made the appropriate provisions in your will, your Literary Executor will distribute all of the literary property that you owned at the time of your death, and can manage your literary estate on an ongoing basis.  

The Literary Executor, acting on behalf of the beneficiaries under your will (e.g. family members, a designated charity, a research library or archive), will be responsible for entering into contracts for exploitation of your copyrights and other intellectual property rights, collecting royalties, maintaining your copyrights, and (where appropriate) arranging for the deposit of your letters, unpublished manuscripts, and other literary materials with a suitable library or historical society. 

Copyright lasts for the life of the creator plus another 70-years in the U.S. To put a point on it: Unlike a general executor who gets the deceased's estate ready to distribute, the literary executor's job is not for a limited time.
Because of the changeable nature of copyrights (e.g. the renewal and reversion of rights, revised editions, film adaptations) the duties of a Literary Executor, or Literary Trustee, projects decades into the future and are ongoing. 

Be forewarned.   Copyrights are complicated.  As such, it is not easy serving as the executor of a literary estate.  For example, a literary executor is trusted to advise the author's beneficiaries on the process of copyright termination.  

Under the Copyright Act, the beneficiaries (generally, not the executor) have the inalienable right to terminate certain copyright licenses and assignments made during the deceased author's lifetime.   Don't delay.  The termination process is time sensitive -- and astonishing complex.  To the extent an estate contains valuable copyright interests, contact a copyright attorney who can advise on the highly technical, and easily waived, termination right.  

Selecting a Literary Executor

A General Executor will often be a spouse or other family member that does not have experience with literary matters. Therefore, you should consider entrusting the care of your papers, existing contracts and unpublished manuscripts to a Literary Executor. Keep in mind that being a Literary Executor can be a lot of work. 

By taking the time to carefully select a Literary Executor, you lessen the likelihood of intra-family disputes that could result in family members refusing to negotiate for the further exploitation of your works -- preferring instead to retire your copyrighted works from publication. And, if your final wish is that your unfinished play based on your aunt Hilda's lesbian affair go unpublished or unproduced, you can provide in your will that your Literary Executor destroy your manuscript after your death. By way of example, Ernest Hemingway (1898 - 1961) made it clear during his lifetime that he did not want his unfinished and unpublished story fragments and manuscripts published after his death. However, since his will was silent on the subject, his estate edited and released not just his early stories, but  three unfinished novels (one of which was a posthumous collaboration with his son, Patrick).  All three were reviewed poorly.

Ideally, your Literary Executor should be someone who understands how the copyright industries operate. That person should also be comfortable with negotiating contracts, or savvy enough to hire an attorney or literary agent to help exploit unpublished works, or exploit rights that were retained by your estate. As mentioned previously, your Literary Executor should also be someone who will carry out your intentions. And, since all things come to an end -- including Literary Executors -- you should provide in your will for a replacement when the estate's Literary Executor dies or becomes incapacitated.

Defining the Literary Executor's Duties

Because the duties and powers of a Literary Executor are not defined by statute, it is imperative that the person drafting your will take great care in describing the scope of your Literary Executor's duties. The powers of a Literary Executor should be as broad and comprehensive as possible, unless, of course, you believe there should be limitations, qualifications or conditions imposed upon your Literary Executor (e.g., different executors appointed for book publishing and theater-related matters).

In preparing the powers of a Literary Executor, you must consider the following questions: 

  • Will the Literary Executor have the sole and exclusive right to make all decisions regarding appropriate publication, republication, sale, license or other exploitation of your work? Or, should she merely be appointed as an advisor to the General Executor?
  • Will the Literary Executor be responsible for preparing unfinished or unpublished manuscripts for publication and seeing those works through publication? 
  • Will the Literary Executor have the right to terminate copyright licenses?
  • Will they have the power to destroy any letters or papers they believe should be destroyed? 
  • In return for their services, will the Literary Executor receive a fee or commission for their services? What is fair compensation? What about reimbursement for expenses? 
  • Will the Literary Executor be required to maintain a separate bank account for such monies? 
  • Will the Literary Executor have the sole right to sue for infringement of copyights? 
  • Will the Literary Executor have the authority to pay accountants attorneys, agents, subagents and others? 
  • In the event the Literary Executor is unwilling or unable to perform her duties, what are the provisions for appointing her successor? Or, will the General Executor assume those duties?
While a family member may agree to work for free, attorneys and literary agents will most likely seek a fee of between 10% and 15% for new contracts they negotiate on behalf of the estate. With regard to administering existing contracts, fee arrangements can vary greatly depending upon the size of the literary estate and the responsibilities of the Literary Executor.

The Literary Trustee 

In some instances, an author may create a lifetime (“inter-vivos”) trust and transfer literary assets to the trust. In this case, a trustee will be appointed to carry out responsibilities similar to an Executor. In such instances, the author appoints a "Literary Trustee" who acts in much the same manner as a "Literary Executor" would under a decedent's will. Furthermore, if an author names trusts as beneficiaries under his will and literary assets will be transferred to such trusts, then the author must also name, in addition to a Literary Executor, a Literary Trustee (who would be the same person) in order to continue acting in such a capacity after the literary assets have been transferred to the trusts.


If you have accumulated enough wealth so that your assets will be subject to an estate tax upon your death, then the Executor will be responsible for valuing all of your assets at that time, including manuscripts, copyrights and contractual rights derived from the publication and reproduction of your works. The Executor (or Literary Executor, as the case may be) should hire an appraiser with significant experience in appraising -- or valuing -- these interests. Authors with significant estates should meet with their attorney or accountant now to determine whether any lifetime planning can be employed to reduce the value of their estates at their death so that more assets can pass to their heirs.
(c) 2002 -2018 Lloyd J. Jassin and Ronald M. Finkelstein

Companion Article

A Guide to Donating Your Papers to an Archive or Library

Lloyd J. Jassin, JD, is a publishing and entertainment attorney and coauthor of The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook (John Wiley & Sons). He has offices in The Paramount Bldg, 1501 Broadway, FL 12, NY, NY 10036. He can be reached at 212-354-4442 or by e-mail at, or you can visit his firm’s website at

Ronald M. Finkelstein, JD, CPA, is a Tax Partner at Marcum, a nationally recognized accounting firm, and national Co-Partner-in-Charge of their Trusts and Estates Practice group. He can be reached at 631-414-4370 or by e-mail at, or you can visit his firm's website at

NOTICE: This article discusses general legal issues of interest and is not designed to give any specific legal advice pertaining to any specific circumstances. It is important that professional legal advice be obtained before acting upon any of the information contained in this article.

Writers Wills: A Rich Legacy (article / The Guardian)
William Shakespeare's Will (PDF)
Jane Austen's Will (PDF)