Creative people and their estates

10 May 2016

A deceased creative may have left a very valuable literary or artistic estate containing all the intellectual property rights to their work, as well as such physical property as manuscripts, artworks and memorabilia which relate to them and to their output.

The specific estate may have been created by means of a Will providing for literary or artistic executors to administer and exploit the works in question. Copyright royalties from marketing print runs of books and reproductions of artworks can be very big business indeed. For artworks of most kinds, the Artist’s Resale Right provides for royalties when an original work is re-sold by a current owner through an auction house or commercial gallery, providing a valuable income stream for the heirs of prolific popular artists long after their deaths.

Like everyone else, creative people are well-advised to make a Will. They can appoint anyone as executor of their creative estates. Well-known organizations may however be retained to take on this role; by way of example, the Society of Authors manages the estates of Philip Larkin and George Bernard Shaw, and Curtis Brown represents Sir Winston Churchill and David Niven.

"...once out of copyright, works can be reproduced freely by anyone."

Challenges recently faced by some sizeable estates have been the extension of the duration of copyright from 50 to 70 years and the task of preserving the estate’s income even where copyright has expired. Stephen Joyce’s solution was to threaten to destroy intimate letters of James Joyce which had not come into the public domain when copyright in all of his grandfather’s writings came back into copyright in 1995 and then expired again finally in 2011. Otherwise, once out of copyright, works can be reproduced freely by anyone. The art world seems to be particularly rife with legal argument with disputes following the respective deaths of Henry Moore (1986), Andy Warhol (1987) and Francis Bacon (1992).

Warhol made no provision in life for the management of his work afterwards. This and the value of his estate probably made lawsuits inevitable. If you are also a creative genius, don’t make the same mistake!

Creatives who died intestate:

Barry White - Left children, wives and girlfriends fighting over his fortune when he died.

James Brown - Had a Will, however, it had not been updated.

Pablo Picasso - Because Picasso died intestate and left no Will, it took 6 years to settle his estate at a cost of £20 million. His assets were eventually divided up among six heirs.

By Laurie Heizler

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