Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Reprint Rights from Dead Writer

Dear Rich: I would like to gain reprint rights to a book that was self published by the author in 1980. The author is now deceased. The inside cover states that no part of the book may be reproduced without his permission. What are my legal liabilities in this situation and where do I go to get permission?  I'm so glad you asked. The Dear Rich staff assumes that when you say, 'reprint rights,' you are referring to the right to reproduce the entire text, not just a segment. If the book was published in the 1980s, it is still under copyright and the rights to the book most likely passed to the author's estate. So you should start your research by attempting to contact the family. You may find information that can help by performing a search at the Copyright Office website, where you will find a tutorial on searching records. (We've also written about copyright research, here and you can get more information in our book, Getting Permission.) When searching through copyright records, you're looking to see if the work has been registered or assigned, or for any mailing address for the writer's attorney or agent. You should also document this search.

If your search for the new owner proves unfruitful, then you have to decide whether you want to proceed without authorization. Even if you are a founder of Googleunauthorized book reproductions will place you in line for a copyright lawsuit. Your two primary concerns are: 1) the likelihood of discovery, and 2) your legal liability. We can't guess at whether your use will be discovered, but the Dear Rich staff can tell you that your liability would include your legal costs, the copyright owner's actual damages, and any additional profits you've earned (unless there is a registration, in which case the damages would be statutory and based on the judge's discretion). In a worst-case scenario, you may have to pay the other side's attorney fees.

You might be able to mitigate your liability by creating an interest-bearing account into which you pay a reasonable royalty -- that is, what a reasonable publisher would be paying the author for such rights. That way, in the event the estate learns of your use, you can offer to pay these sums, which would hopefully demonstrate your good faith and lead to a legitimate license. Keep in mind that under this scenario, your use still constitutes an infringement and the estate is under no obligation to accept your payment.