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Do I need to include my music in my estate plan?

Rusty stared at the estate planning attorney, perplexed.

“Why do you need a list of every song I’ve ever written, even if they haven’t been published? That sounds like a waste of time. Those are just my pickin’s, they aren’t worth anything.”

The attorney peered at him through her reading glasses. “And what happens if a relative discovers a song in your studio after your death and sells it for a million dollars?”

Rusty ran a hand through his long, black hair and shrugged. “Then my kids would get a nice bonus, I guess.”

The attorney shook her head. “Why would that relative turn that money over to your kids? She might just keep it. You need to determine who holds the rights to your copyrights, who has the right to sell your works, and who gets any royalties, not only on your songs, but also your recordings.”

Rusty scoffed. “Oh, those aren’t worth anything. I’m lucky if I get thirty dollars a year from royalties. Besides, I haven’t copyrighted half of my songs. I figured the cost of filing wasn’t worth it.”

The attorney cocked an eyebrow. “You might as well start tossing dollar bills out the window. Your music has value and you need to protect it. Does it seem fair that anyone could make money off of it after your death?” She set her pen down. “You need to plan ahead. Look beyond your death.”

Rusty scratched his unshaved jaw. “I wrote half of those songs with my bandmates. I don’t own them 100 percent.”

“Then you need to figure out who gets credit for what and divvy up the percentage of ownership.”

“I don’t know. That seems like a whole lot of trouble for nothing. I’m not famous or anything.”

“Check out Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, or Bradley Nowell. Their music didn’t become popular until years after their death. It’s impossible to predict the future, Rusty. Fame may be fleeting, but if it happens, you need to make sure the right people benefit.”

Intellectual property of any kind has potential value. Whether you are a musician, writer, artist, or engaged in other creative endeavors, copyrights are an important way to protect your work.

For musicians, copyrights generally protect compositions, including music and lyrics, and the recordings of those songs. The owner of the copyright has exclusive rights to the work, and controls who can make copies, prepare derivative works, sell or distribute copies, and display the work publicly. Generally, copyrights for works created after January 1, 1978 are in force for the lifetime of the owner plus 70 years after death. However, copyrights for anonymous or pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, last for a term of 95 years from the year of publication or 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. The life of a copyright secured prior to 1978 varies. (More information is available at https://www.copyright.gov/.)

To create a record of copyright for estate planning purposes:

  • Identify all copyrights and trademarks registered in your name or in the name of an entity in which you hold an interest, such as a partnership. Collect supporting documents.
  • Identify all other work that warrants a copyright or trademark. Register for copyright or trademark protection.
  • When a copyright or trademark is owned by more than one person, determine each participant’s percentage of ownership, and document that in writing.
  • Create a spreadsheet of all copyrights and trademarks, indicating the date of creation, date of filing, date of receipt of registration, and percentage of ownership.
  • Appoint someone to manage your copyrights and trademarks after your death.
  • Determine how your copyrights, trademarks, and likeness may be used. For example, are there ways you do not want your music used? Is it appropriate to use your name in advertising?
  • Designate the names of those who should receive the income from after-death use, royalties, and sales.
  • Put that information in a written legal document, such as a will or trust.

The music you create is an important part of your legacy. That’s why it’s important to protect copyrights and trademarks in your estate plan.

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