A Will To Write

A Will To Write by Simon Whaley
A Will To Write by Simon Whaley

Writers’ News:

It’s something many of us put off for another day, but writing a will is essential to safeguard your literay estate, advises Simon Whaley.

I love a good death, don’t you? As writers, we may enjoy killing our characters, but have you thought of what happens to them after you die? Make a will and state clearly what is to happen to the copyright in your work and your creations can go on living and generating an income for many more years.

As soon as we put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, the work we create is copyrighted. This is designed to protect our creative works from being exploited without our permission. We can grant a magazine the right to publish our words in their pages (such as First British Serial Rights), or we can give a publisher the right to print our words in a book, and so on. Copyright holders have the authority to generate an income from that creative work.

Current legislation (there have been several amendments to the duration of copyright during the 20th Century) fixes the period of copyright from the moment the text is created until 70 years from the end of the year in which the creator died. In theory, our words could generate an income for the next two or three generations. Our copyrights are a form of property, so we can leave them like we might leave a piece of jewellery, or furniture, to a family member or friend.

One of the most famous copyright gifts is that of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, who donated his copyright (before he died) to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in 1929. For every stage performance of Peter Pan, the hospital’s charity has benefitted financially. (The copyright first expired in 1987, 50 years after Barrie’s death, but a unique clause in the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, gives the charity all royalties from any Peter Pan performances in perpetuity.)

Leaving your copyright in a will isn’t just for the JM Barrie’s or the JK Rowling’s of this world. It’s for every writer. No one knows what the future may bring. Who’d have thought ten years ago that blogging would have taken off in the way it has? Even stranger perhaps, is the fact that some blogs have since gone on to become printed books, such as Belle de Jour’s blog, http://belledejour-uk.blogspot.com, which was published in book format as the Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. Who knows what opportunities may exist in twenty, forty, sixty or one hundred year’s time, for our lovingly created words of today? Leaving a will and expressing who you want to benefit from your copyrighted material, gives those beneficiaries the opportunity to exploit any new rights that may come into existence after your death. I’m sure JM Barrie wasn’t thinking of electronic rights for iPads and MP3 players when he wrote Peter Pan!

About two-thirds of the UK population don’t have a will. I was one of those two-thirds, but after a couple of short meetings, I’m now part of the third who does have a will. Everyone’s situation is different and it’s important that you get a solicitor to draft your will to ensure it is legally binding and that your express wishes are carried out as you want them to be. My professionally drafted will cost me £85 because my circumstances are straightforward. Yours may be different and more complicated, so will prices vary, but many solicitors offer a free initial consultation to discuss your circumstances before you make the decision to go ahead.

It’s worth spending time thinking about your situation and your wishes before the first meeting with a solicitor:

  • Copyright is an intellectual property that you can leave to one person, whilst the physical manuscript forms part of your chattels (personal property), which can be left to someone else.
  • A will needs to be effective in case you were to die today. Don’t assume that you’ll be around for another 20, 30 or more years. (Although, I hope you are!) Bequeathing rights to relations who are currently still running around in nappies, thinking they’ll have kids of their own when they finally get their hands on your text, isn’t good if you expired tomorrow. A good solicitor should point out that if you died next week and your nappy-wearing nephew inherited your latest novel, his ability to sign a contract with a publisher/agent as the copyright holder maybe somewhat limited! It’s worth thinking about issues like this before your initial meeting.
  • Are your records accurate? If you’ve had work published, do you have clear, accurate records identifying which rights have been sold, and therefore which rights are still available for exploitation by your relatives?

Review your will regularly, especially after major changes in your personal circumstances and any significant changes in your writing success. It’s worth pointing out that an author’s literary estate can join the Society of Authors, and if you have an agent they may be willing to continue working for your estate after your death.

Nobody wants to think about their death, but we’re in a fortunate position where our words become a piece of intellectual property that we can leave for future generations to enjoy and exploit. Don’t give relations extra grief or heartache at a difficult time by not leaving clear instructions for what should happen to your creations. The cost for this peace of mind could easily be covered by the sale of an article or short story.

Further Information

To find a solicitor in your area, visit the Law Society’s website:


The Society of Author’s offers some useful guides that are free to members, or £2 each for non-members:

  • Your Copyrights After Your Death
  • Copyright in Artistic Works including Photographs

Contact: The Society of Authors, 84 Drayton Gardens, London, SW10 9SB

(c) Simon Whaley