Estate Planning and Copyright

Kate Spelman And Susan Von Herrmann

©2013. Published in Landslide, Vol. 5, No. 3, January/February 2013, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.

This article addresses several important questions that estate planners should answer in order to best serve their clients:


  1. When is a transfer of a copyright not really a transfer?
  2. Why is estate planning different for owners of copyrights?
  3. What is necessary to preserve and transfer these assets during life and after death?


We live in a time of abundance. The advent of the Internet and digital copying lowered barriers to market entry, resulting in bottlenecks to the rush to store, distribute, and transmit content. This abundance of content includes much that is protected by copyright law and results in a great deal of commerce. We see and listen to copyrighted material everywhere—from the first screening of a movie in a theatre, to the second screening on a laptop, to the third screening on a smartphone. It is hard to find anyone who does not consume copyrights on a regular basis. The term of a copyright owned by an individual is measured as “life plus 70 years.” The phrase “life plus” is a euphemism for the word “death,” a concept estate planners know well.

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