My first cousin once removed wrote a book in 1967, copyrighted it and had 2,000 copies printed. He died in December 2002.
He left a will, though I'm not sure whether or not the copyright was specifically mentioned in the will.
The heirs believe they cannot have it reprinted until after 75 years have passed.
I believe that, if the copyright was mentioned in the will, then whomever he left the copyright to may have the book reprinted at any time, if they so desire.
And, further, I believe that, if the copyright is not mentioned in the will, the surviving heirs share equally in the ownership of the copyright, and can have the book reprinted at any time, as long as they all agree to the reprinting.
Who is correct? And, if neither of us is correct, what is correct?
3 Answers from Attorneys
In the absence of any other contractual restrictions from the will or pre-existing licenses, for example, the owner of the copyright can reprint at any time. Sometimes publishers obtain certain rights to control subsequent reprints. However, in the absence of other such contractual obligations, this means that once the legal heirs are vested with respect to ownership of the copyright, they can reprint the book at any time. The 75 year issue is only related to when the copyright expires so that anyone can reproduce the book.
The copyright is a part of the deceased's estate. If not already done open probate and the personal representative may treat the copyright as part of the deceased's estate. If the family all agree, then the court will approve a settlement of all of the assets, including the copyright. If not the court can award the copyright at a hearing or trial.
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As my colleagues have said, copyright is treated just like personal property, and this one is part of your cousin's estate. The only glitch to reprinting the material is if your cousin assigned the copyright or licensed the rights to a third party. Without those eventualities, the heirs are free to reprint at will once the estate has been distributed and closed.
Copyright law changed dramatically in 1976; my colleagues both assume that the original publication bore a copyright notice (you've seen copyright notices: "Copyright 1967, YourCousin. All rights reserved."). If it did, then the copyright expires 95 years after the work was first published, meaning that the owner of the copyright — presumably your cousin's heirs — inherited the same bundle of rights your cousin owned and that bundle of rights will remain in place to protect your cousin's work to the benefit of his heirs until 2062, at which point the work will enter the public domain. If the publication did not have a copyright notice, the work is not protected by copyright; it is now in the public domain due to failure to observe the formalities required under the the law at the time of publication.
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