In 1977 my great grandfather wrote a book. A few years later he passed away. No one in my family knows who inherited the copyright.
If a publisher wanted to reprint the book or make it available online they would need permission to avoid breaking the law. But who should they ask? The copyright does not expire until 2052 so the problem will only intensify as his descendants multiply.
My great grandfather’s book is rotting in a paper prison. Unless you’re careful your book may be orphaned as well.
How to Escape the Paper Prison:
#1 Own the Copyright in Your Name
This is essential. If your publisher owns the copyright, what will happen when the company is purchased, merged, liquidated or spun off? Who will own the copyright then? Many publishers own thousands of copyrights that they don’t even know about. Nor does anyone else. If you don’t own the copyright, the question is not if but when will your books become orphaned.
#2 Designate a Literary Heir in Your Will
You may need to talk to your lawyer about how to do this, but your great grandchildren will thank you. The problem is your heir will also need to designate an heir since the copyright will likely outlive him or her as well. If you expect your book to continue to sell well for years to come this is even more important.
#3 Release Your Book into the Public Domain Upon Your Death
The public domain is where the works of William Shakespeare, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens live. They can be reprinted without paying royalties and stored in online repositories such as the Gutenberg Project. Willing your book to the public domain saves your children from the hassle of designating an heir. They won’t collect royalties if you release it to the public domain. If they forget your book it may still be orphaned. If you book is not selling this is the best option.
#4 Publish Your Book Under The Creative Commons
#5 Limit the Term of The Copyright
When you write your copyright at the front of the book you can set it to expire on a certain date. When our founding fathers first created the copyright they set them to last for 14-21 years just like patents. After that they automatically went into the public domain. Consider adding a clause that says (Copyrighted untill 20xx)
This is not legal advice. I’m not a lawyer. You should consult your lawyer before you do anything crazy. Just try to find one who know what the creative commons is.