I am in possession of a manuscript (true story) written by someone who used to live in Arizona. The manuscript belonged to someone for many years and was left to me. I am not related to the author, nor were the people who had it for many years. Does it actually belong to me, or could heirs of the author claim ownership? I am pretty sure they do not know about the manuscript.
1 Answer from Attorneys
Ownership of the manuscript is distinct from ownership of the copyright in the work contained in the manuscript. 17 U.S.C. § 202. Thus, if you own a lawfully made copy of the manuscript, you are entitled to sell it, lend it, or give it away. 17 U.S.C. § 109(a). But that does not mean you have any of the intangible rights in the work of authorship itself. The heirs of the author -- or whoever the owner of the copyright in the work may be -- owns the exclusive right to reproduce the work into copies (make more copies of the manuscript, for example), to make derivative works (such as to make a movie from it), or perform it publicly (by reading the manuscript in a place open to the public). It would be the same analysis as if you bought a legitimate copy of a best seller at your local bookstore. You own the copy, and can sell it, lend it, rent it, or give it away, but you can't make more copies of it or authorize anyone to make a movie from it.
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