word craft


Of Passing Interest

Here’s a mor­dant ques­tion. What hap­pens to a writer’s work when she/he pass­es on? The ques­tion comes up because of an arti­cle, “The Busi­ness of Min­ing Lit­er­ary Estates is Boom­ing,” which appeared in the Novem­ber 11, 2023, The Econ­o­mist. (Dig­i­tal access to this arti­cle is lim­it­ed, but your pub­lic library will have the print edition.)

Three Locks Bonnie MacBirdHave you won­dered about the many Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries that have appeared of late? It’s because, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, an author’s work is owned by his/her estate sev­en­ty years after death. After that peri­od of time, any­one is free to use the char­ac­ters and even the sto­ries as they will. So, right now, you are free to write your own Sher­lock Holmes sto­ry. Or Wind in the Wil­lows sto­ry. Win­nie-the-Pooh sto­ries. Lit­tle Women or Oz stories. 

Like many cou­ples, my wife and I have wills in which the spouse inher­its the other’s assets. Writ­ing Copy­rights are con­sid­ered assets. Fur­ther­more, there is an agree­ment that my agent will con­tin­ue to func­tion to rep­re­sent me after my demise. when both my wife and I pass on, the assets—which is to say the rights to my books—will still be under someone’s con­trol. That means if any­one wish­es to make a movie—or a game—out of one of my books there is a legal frame­work to do that. For X num­ber of years, depend­ing on when the book was published.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald DahlIndeed, The Econ­o­mist’s arti­cle points out that Roald Dahl’s estate recent­ly sold the rights to his books to Net­flix for 700 mil­lion dol­lars. No won­der that a new busi­ness orga­ni­za­tion, Inter­na­tion­al Lit­er­ary Prop­er­ties has come into being to buy lit­er­ary estates. They seem to have pur­chased some fifty of these estates, includ­ing such diverse works as that of Langston Hugh­es and Georges Simenon. 

Then there is the Soci­ety of Authors — a “Unit­ed King­dom trade union for pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers, illus­tra­tors and lit­er­ary+ trans­la­tors, found­ed in 1884 to pro­tect the rights and fur­ther the inter­ests of authors.” It also acts as trustee for more than fifty authors’ estates.

Of course, there is also the ques­tion of how to use these rights. Does one alter the texts to bring them into line with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties, as well as polit­i­cal and social considerations?

The Secret Sisters AviThe dri­ving force behind all this appears to be TV and audio­book rights, and the quest for con­tent. That said, I can say from per­son­al expe­ri­ence, that the sell­ing of such rights is com­plex, tor­tur­ous and, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, does not come to any light. In my case, it is fur­ther com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that “dig­i­tal rights,” and the like, now part of all pub­lish­ing con­tracts, did not even exist when my first book was pub­lished in 1970. 

My response to all of this is: why not read the books in their orig­i­nal form? I can guar­an­tee they will be bet­ter, more engag­ing, and more mean­ing­ful than any film variant.

On the oth­er hand, if you want to use my recent­ly pub­lished The Secret Sis­ters, you are free to do so after 2093.

I prob­a­bly won’t complain.

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