Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

A Copyright Question

Going To Phrase It A Little Differently Tonight…

Fact: You sold all rights to your book, signed them all away in some contract that seemed like a good idea at the time. Your book no longer exists in your magic bakery.

Now, a corporation owns your book, is doing nothing with it, and you can’t get it back. It is an accounting number on their financial bookkeeping. All your work is gone. Poof. Because you made a bad decision and signed over all rights for the life of the copyright.

(All the writers I saw in Barnes&Noble did that, sadly.)

Question: When can you or your heirs publish that book?

If you answer was never, you need to learn copyright. Desperately need to learn copyright.

The actual answer in the United States is in 35 years from the date of the contract, if you jump through some hoops that are not hard, but need to be followed. You or your heirs can get the copyright you signed away back if done right. Takes an IP attorney, of course. You can also clear out your agent or their heirs at that point.

Second time your heirs can once again publish the work is 70 years after your death. That’s right, the book will be in the public domain at that point and your heirs can publish it all they want, just like everyone else.

And that is enough for this topic because last night no one cared, as is typical of any copyright discussion.  Night…

Monthly Regular Workshops…

You can find them under Online Workshops to the right of this post. Sign up for July on For credits or workshops beyond July, write me.

Each regular workshop is 6 weeks long.

Again, it will take you about three hours per week on your own pace to do each of these if you do the assignments. These are the starting dates of upcoming regular workshops.

All have openings at the moment.

Class #1… July 10th … Depth #3: Research
Class #2… July 10th … Author Voice
Class #3… July 10th … Dialog
Class #4… July 10th … Writing into the Dark
Class #5… July 10th … Writing Fiction Sales Copy
Class #6… July 10th … Writing and Selling Short Stories
Class #7… July 11th … Depth in Writing
Class #8… July 11th … Business
Class #9… July 11th … Writing Fantasy
Class #10… July 11th … Information Flow
Class #11… July 11th … Magic Bakery
Class #12… July 11th … Advanced Depth

Again, if you don’t have credits, sign up direction at Teachable.



  • Thomas E

    My answer was never because in the UK where I live there’s no copyright reversion… And in practice even in the USA my heirs and the general public would have forgotten about my work if it wasn’t in print for maybe 100 years.

    • dwsmith

      Thomas, I am sure that was what Twain and Dickens and a hundred other writer thought in their time. Luckily their heirs were smarter. (grin)

      • Thomas E

        But that’s my point… Twain and Dickens heirs kept their work in print.

        Without owning copyright my heirs couldn’t do that.

        And since copyright is 70+ years after death and copyright DOESN’T revert in the UK… A bad deal in the UK is for 70+ years after death.

        • dwsmith

          Yup, Thomas, the writers outside of the States are screwed for 70 years if they sign the contracts. And inside the States they are screwed the same way because they will be long, long gone from writing in 35 years because they are traditionally published.

          But interestingly enough, 35 years comes very quickly. I sold my first short stories in 1974. Rights reverted, but if they hadn’t, I would have already missed the 35 year deadline.

          I sold my first novel in 1987. I got the rights reverted, so fine there. First Trek and Spider-Man novels in 1991. 2026 is 35 years. I have a ten year window ahead of that date to file, so I am in that window now with those and a dozen other novels. I am waiting until I have about thirty books in the window before filing for each one. Going to be fun.

          • Anon

            But for ST and Spider-man, even if you got the rights back, how could you publish them, since you don’t own the characters? Wouldn’t they essentially be fanfic at that point?

          • dwsmith

            Nope. I would not be able to use anything with a Trademark in such a way as to be outside of normal trademark rules. But the words are mine. I can sell them as I like. Chances are I would do what we call “scraping the serial numbers” which would get me past the trademark issues and other things. Easy fix on most of them. It will be an interesting battle. Again, chances are the publishers on most will just offer to buy them again. Or settle with me to not publish them. You got to understand the power of copyright and the rules of trademark.

          • Anon

            Are those Star Trek books and such work-for-hire? I’m curious how this information would relate to an author hiring a cover artist on a work for hire basis for cover art, where the agreement is that the author owns all rights (including copyright) to the art. Would the artist be able to take it back after 35 years, then charge the author again if the author wants to keep using that cover image?

          • dwsmith

            Yes, you would not use work-for-hire in a contract because unless the person is your employee, it would not be work-for-hire. You would use “all rights contract” with the artist and yes, then, if they wanted, could get it back in 35 years.

  • Harvey

    Crickets aren’t always indicative of not caring. I imagine a lot of us care. I shared the URL for yesterday’s post just as I will share this one, and I bought the book and started learning copyright years ago (on your recommendation then). Thanks, Dean.

  • Kenny

    Dean, I maybe one of the odd ones but I care.

    I mean these IP are what makes us profitable in the long, and short, term. I keep looking at all the related items that the kids have from a IPs (magazines, cutlery, plates, toys, bags, just to name a few) and think about the great deal Lucas done with Star Wars.

    IP and copyright is powerful and important and something I’ll learn about as soon as I’m able.

  • Marsha

    Don’t assume no one cares, Dean. I answered your questions and then looked them up in my handy-dandy Copyright Handbook to see if I knew the answers. Yup. I knew them because I’ve been listening. And I plan to join the Magic Bakery workshop so I’ll learn more. Important stuff, this.

  • Prasenjeet

    HI Dean. A very informative post. What if you signed away all your rights for the “lifetime of the copyright”? Does the 35 year rule in the US still apply? Or is it 70 years after the author’s death? From your post, it seems like the 35 year rule still applies but would want some more clarity on this. 🙂

    • dwsmith

      Yup, all rights in the US, you can get your copyright back at 35 years. There is a window of time you have to give notice, and other rules to follow, but it reverts everything automatically to your or your heirs if you jump through the hoops. Second place is when it drops into the public domain 70 years after your death.

  • Janine

    I think the reason why some authors give away all rights to the book is due to peer pressure; many writers still look down at indie published work as “inferior” and that you have only made it once your book is published by New York and in bookstores everywhere. That and everyone celebrates when they sell their book to big publishing, and expect everyone to aspire to the same goals of fame as they do, not realizing what’s going on because they don’t see their own writing career as a business, and I think this goes back to the mentality that the US has in general of training to be an employee instead of an employer. Like you, I’ve started to not talk to anyone about what traditionally published really entails.

    I think some people didn’t reply as much due to the holiday to be honest.

    • dwsmith

      I was just stunned at my overwhelming feeling of sadness going into the Barnes&Noble. Just stunned. I am not feeling sorry for the big names in there. They have their career paths (with decreasing money) but they might have a little clout to fix a few contract details. It’s all the one, two, three book authors I felt sad for. And that was most of the store. They have no idea. And never will, sadly. Or few of them ever will.

      • Janine

        I think it’s that all writers are told that the one book path is the ideal path and don’t allow any deviation from that pathway, and if you do deviate, you get ridiculed and seen as “inferior”. They tell the young writers that their goal should be to get into a bookstore and that the “only” way is to get an agent, get a traditional publisher, wait two years and be in the bookshelves for maybe a few months unless you’re super popular. I saw a post on twitter not too long ago about how after years of rewriting and pain staking work, you’re invited to a big book convention and have ARCs ready to sign and famous authors congratulating you and this is the goal you should aspire to. I think it’s also because so many have their heads in the sand about indie writing, and how with some work, you can get your indie published book in the bookstore. Maybe it’s because being famous is more important to them than pushing story after story?

        • dwsmith

          Sadly, they don’t understand that being famous isn’t a one or even ten book proposition for all but one or two. It takes many years and many books, but those folks aren’t willing to do what needs to be done for years and years. In a hurry and they will be gone shortly.

          • Janine

            “It takes many years and many books, but those folks aren’t willing to do what needs to be done for years and years. In a hurry and they will be gone shortly.”

            Many of the myth believers will actually counter that with “I do put in years of work on my novel, crafting and revising it to be the best it can be”. That’s the problem, they spend years on a single novel, expecting to be their “big book”, and tell others you have to do it this way. But by then, they get sick of it and those that manage to get it published will likely be spending years more on the next book. And with only one product, years of effort go down the drain compared to the ones that have material out every month.

  • Tony DeCastro

    I’m a total noob, so Copyright is one of several things I have to learn about. I’ve mostly been rationalizing that I best served writing (if I’m honest, it’s probably because it’s more fun). My knee jerk reaction to your question yesterday was, when it hits the Public Domain. So I guess I was partly right. I had no clue about the 35 year thing. I did pick-up a copy of the Copyright Handbook a couple of months ago, so I guess I have one tool to better understanding. BTW, I wonder if anyone else got a sick feeling in the gut about the fact that the agent’s heirs may have rights to continue collecting a check! *btw, I started trying to teach myself cover design yesterday (another thing I’ve been putting off). I had so much fun, that before I knew it 4 hours were up, and I never gotten around to writing…and that’s how another streak ended.

    • dwsmith

      Agents heirs and their heirs, since it is 70 years past your death that you signed the contract for. And worse, the agency agreement. Yup, a gardener mows your lawn a few times and then their heirs are going after your children and grandchildren for money for those few times they mowed your lawn. That stupid, yet writers chase after agents. Head-shaking.

      • Janine

        I didn’t know that about the agents still getting money after all these years (though I sorta felt like that was a thing). Yikes!

        And to think all these newbie writers are chasing after agents still with all these twitter pitches. Even if they do know that there’s other ways to get published.

        Also, most mainstream indie writers suggest spending money to get a book cover done by a professional and not do it yourself because you should be focused on that rewrite and marketing. Sure, $500 isn’t much when you publish once or twice a year. But if you’re putting out things every month, it’s almost like rent, and it’s better to start learning how to do it. Plus, you have your vision of the story on the cover, not someone else’s vision.

        • Linda Maye Adams

          I’m actually paying to have a cover done, though I’ve done them myself. The cover is around $300. The reason is that my job is toxic–one of those where they say make do with less and don’t change anything and expect miracles. As a result, my energy is limited, and I haven’t had the mental energy to spend trying to figure out how to do the cover. In fact, I’ve had “Do print” on my list since 2015, and all it does is stay on the list. So, after Dean’s tip which included getting books into print, plus a well-timed marketing workshop, I decided that I was better off handing it off to someone else. I may also hand off the book formatting as well, for a lot of the same reasons.

          • dwsmith

            Book formatting is pretty easy these days with Vellum, but you have to have a Mac to use it. Takes less than a hour per book, so caution on paying too much for that.

            One issue with covers by others is who owns the copyright? Make sure and get in your records the art copyright information, making sure it can be used for a commercial purpose, and make sure you have a contract with the cover designer for one-time fee, all rights to the cover move to you. Critical you do this. And keep the contract with the art information in a file for the book or story. And the contract with the cover designer must be in writing, for all rights, and signed because he or she is selling all rights to you for the cover for a flat fee.

            Sorry, Linda, to dump more work on you, but often hiring someone is more work than just doing it yourself.

          • Linda Maye Adams

            Thanks for the information on what I need to save. At this point, that will be easier for me to do.

            I don’t have a Mac, so no access to Vellum. I’ve been using GIMP, Photoshop Elements; even had Adobe Illustrator. And it really was coming down to either I’m getting into print, or I’m not.

            I did graphics for a living for a while, and this was something that turned into a big, wet, dripping bag. At one point, when I took a week’s leave, I decided I was going to learn how to use Illustrator to make covers. Went to Learning how to use software from video is very difficult for me to start with, but was several versions behind what I had. I was spending so much time struggling to figure out where everything was that I finally gave up after two days because I was better off writing. I also grabbed a book about covers made easy, thought it would be better since I do better with learning software by reading…and easy it wasn’t. I used to like playing around with software and figuring out how to do–I learned PhotoShop on my own–so it’s shocking to me that this was such a deal-breaker.

          • dwsmith

            Illustrator is beyond hard. Beyond. Makes Photoshop look simple and that is hard. I use photoshop for cropping only. So I completely understand that if that was the way you were going. Yikes. I think I would have broken a computer if I tried to learn that. (grin)

          • Kate Pavelle

            Linda I have most of my covers done, because I’m too slow with Photoshop, although I’m getting better. As for getting books to print, D2D has a lovely system now where, if you feed it a clean book with clearly marked chapters (page break, bold chapter heading) it will generate a file for ePub, mobi, and the PDF can be sized to your trim size. I exported this, and received my proof few days ago. I was happily surprised. It’s not “great” in that the orphans/widows have just 1 lines on the next page maybe three times, but it was absolutely painless. And D2D now lets you customize your book with cute line art, so the e-books look the same as the print. I do the file for Amazon separately to avoid listing competitior’s URLs, but other than that its fine. Also, KDP has a nice cover generator. It now lets you use your e-book cover and it generates a 3D wrap. Caveat: sold only on Amazon, no extended distribution like with CS. For me it’s a good start though, I was woefully behind on printed books.

  • JM

    It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just that the previous post was so depressing. In part, you’re preaching to the choir who have absorbed that knowledge. In part, those who are still caught in the dream/myth either refuse to listen or were just bummed out by it.

    There are some lawyers who disagree with you about the 35 years, so it’ll be interesting for you to relate the results after you get the rights back (or have to sue to get them back).

    • dwsmith

      There is no suing. I just get them automatically if I jump through the hoops (here in the States). It is automatic. Now they can sue me all they want, which if some publisher is stupid enough to do so, I look forward to, actually. Chances are all will offer to buy the books again or not care. One or the other. But it is automatic. The questions will come in because of the Work-for-hire contracts on some of them. Supreme Court (here in the States) affirmed a ruling that laid out the nine aspects of work-for-hire a whole bunch of years ago under copyright and I don’t fit under any of them.

  • Cynthia Lee

    I’ve been telling myself that I’m going to buy the Copyright Handbook and learn it (or some of it, anyway) for years now. I swear I’ll do it one day. 😉

    • dwsmith

      Are you trying to sell your work, Cynthia? What are you selling? Scraps of paper? Why bother to try to write and sell if you don’t even know what you are selling?

      • Cynthia Lee

        Dean, you are absolutely right. I feel the shame now. I just bought the Copyright Handbook.

      • Harvey

        Just a thought, or maybe a caution….

        I’ve had work published traditionally, though through a small publisher (9% royalty) and I’ve published independently. I would never go back. And I wouldn’t chase an agent even if I was carrying a stick or a pitchfork. On that basis…

        Learnning copyright is massively important, learning what we actually own (IP) and how we can license it.

        But IMHO keeping writing fun is even MORE important. I was reminded of that again recently in a filmed keynote delivered by Ray Bradbury. I want storytelling to remain something I look forward to. (The video URL is

        If writing the stories and novels weren’t fun, I wouldn’t have anything to sell in the first place, and neither would my heirs. But I can’t allow worry about selling to overlay or infiltrate the writing.

        That’s exactly why I occasionally fall off Heinlein’s Rule number 4. I always get back on, but not because it’s important. More because I have the stuff and publishing it costs me only a little time, so I might as well.

        For me, personally, I have to keep that separation in there. If my characters ever stop telling me stories that get my blood circulating, well, I’ll count myself fortunate they ever spoke to me at all and I’ll find something else fun to do.

        • dwsmith

          Harvey, my attitude exactly. I also will add in the challenge part. I love to be challenge, which makes it, for me, even more fun.