Five things you should know and do when you inherit a copyright.

Under the current copyright laws, a copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime plus seventy years. This means that a copyright will always outlive its creator, and it will be passed on at least once. But what is a person supposed to do with a copyright once they have inherited it?

  1. The first thing the new owner (i.e., you) should do is find out if this copyright is still making money, or has the potential to make money. (If there is no income occurring, and/or no desire for income, then minimal action needs to be taken at all.) If the copyright is (or could be) bringing in a profit, though, there are some steps you can take to protect and maximize that (potential) income.
  2. Second, you should update the copyright registration with the Copyright Office (or register the work, if that hasn’t happened yet). Registration creates a record that puts the world on notice that you want to protect this work, and there are several advantages if you end up having to go to court. Additionally, updating the registration with your contact information allows people who want to license the work to contact you. You don’t want to miss out on a lucrative movie deal because they couldn’t track you down for permission, right?
  3. Third, you’ll want to make sure there aren’t any existing contracts or deals that would interfere with your plan to make a profit on this work. By a little detective work and researching the previous owner’s files (if they have any), you can find out if there’s a long-forgotten license out there that’s likely to cause trouble.
  4. Fourth, you will need to do some marketing if you want to make a profit on this copyright. Very few people will buy something made by a person they’ve never heard of unless it is recommended by someone they trust or respect. If the previous owner was doing any marketing, you’d want to keep that going; maintaining a system is much easier than creating one. If they were not marketing or not marketing enough (in your humble opinion), you’d need to figure out the best method to increase sales, or you’ll need to hire someone to do that for you. If the copyright is making a significant profit, you may want to consider creating a business entity. This would give you some tax benefits, but it would also come with its own expenses and hassles, so you would definitely want to weigh the pros and cons before going forward on this.
  5. Lastly, whenever there’s a chance to make a profit, there’s someone else that wants to take that profit for themselves. Infringers are the bane of a copyright owner’s existence, and you’ll want to keep your eyes out so you can stop an infringer before he (or she) really gets started.

If you would like more information on what to do with an inherited copyright, you are welcome to email me at

Kelly Way Attorney pic and bio Kelley Way was born and raised in Walnut Creek, California. She graduated from UC Davis with a B.A. in English, followed by a Juris Doctorate. Kelley is a member of the California Bar and an aspiring writer of young adult fantasy novels.