Copyright Valuation… A Sort of Rant…

Or Maybe Just Puzzlement…

Before I start on the rant, a reminder that the workshop discount I offered in the Monday blog will expire late on Friday night. Don’t miss it.


This story starts at Superstars. Kevin J. Anderson and his wonderful crew had set up some panels on estate planning for writers and I was sitting in all of them. So was Kevin. Kevin and I and Kris are all working hard on dealing with our estates after two of our friends died without even a will. We all have wills and such, but we want to take everything to the next step.

We all want our estates to be publishing our work long after we are gone. Not because I will be around to care, but my copyright is worth a lot of money and I hope others can make money on it, and maybe a few charities as well.

So I mentioned in a group a few hours later after the Estate panels that the panels had been great and this one writer said, “I want my family to destroy my writing when I am gone.”

And another young writer popped in and said that he would toss out all his unfinished stories before he died.

I sort of stood there, mouth open, as four young writers talked about destroying their own work. I honestly was so surprised and the conversation didn’t last long enough for me to say anything before they went their own ways.

I had just never heard of people talking so openly about throwing money away and not letting their heirs have it. Wow, what egos. And what lack of knowledge about how much copyright is worth.

Edgar Rice Burroughs luckily did not do that, and neither did hundreds of other writers you still read that are long dead. In fact I just read that there is a new Tarzan graphic novel coming out. Cool.

For me, when I go, I want my copyright to be mined and expanded. I don’t care if other writers are hired to write new books in my top series (called derivative rights). Why would I try to stop anyone from doing that? I will be dead. And my work has value for a very long time after that point. I want my estate to license that work out, keep my work growing and expanding.

Unfinished short stories and novels? Now granted, I have very few, but not in a million years would I throw that copyright away. Even unfinished, it has value and someone can be hired to finish it.

So let me be clear.

  1. Make sure, if nothing else, you have a will which mentions what you would like to have done with your writing. Keeping it in print might be enough in a will to get the idea across. If you tell your heirs to throw away your work, just stop!! Go learn copyright, learn valuation of copyright, and if that doesn’t get you to change that, silliness, seek professional help for your overinflated ego.
  2. If you get to understand copyright and wills and estates, you can do a lot, lot more in estate planning to help out your heirs. But make sure the focus is to keep the work in print.
  3. Do not throw any writing away, no matter your opinion of it. You will be dead and others can worry about your sorry ego and your reputation for you.
  4.  All writing has value. All copyright has value. Fairly certain Burroughs would not have thought about the chance of electronic books and graphic novels.
  5. Let your heirs do what they want with your work as they see fit as long as it stays in print and is tended to. Make sure that “staying in print” is the focus requirement of your estate. Nothing else. In other words, give them the power, a large part of the earnings, and get out of their way.

Just understand that you are the worst judge of your own work. Nature of writing. And every bit of writing you do is protected by copyright that you own and it has value. If you don’t think so, you are wrong. Go learn copyright.

Never throw anything away. If you do, just imagine that you are tossing away more thousands and thousands of dollars than you can even imagine. Bags and bags of money. You might not ever finish that story or book, but someone twenty years after you are gone might, hired by your estate. And make your heirs a ton of money doing so.

Okay, moving on.

(Don’t forget this is the last day of the workshop discount code.)



  • Harvey Stanbrouigh

    Sounds like a ton of self-loathing or self-doubt instead of ego. At any rate, I wonder whether they got the idea from Terry Pratchett.

    The idea that any writer could destroy already published work is just silly. Nothing can ever go out of print again. Well, unless some really big boot kicks the information-age plug out of the wall.

    I already tried to leave my work to my alma-mater, same place where Jack Williamson taught. I spoke via email with then university president Patrice Caldwell in late 2020. They didn’t want my work. Go figure.

    • dwsmith

      They can’t make money on it, Harvey. Giving stuff to universities to be lost is so 1980s. With this new world, that is flat silly unless it is papers you can’t do anything with. Consider yourself lucky they turned you down.

      However, setting up a corporation with people to make money from your work and for it to continue is a great way to do it and have a charity or two also have a financial stake in the company making money and you got something that doesn’t depend on one person to keep things alive.

      • Harvey Stanbrouigh

        Thanks for letting me know. I wasn’t aware. I assumed (there’s that word) a university would have a vested interest in keeping the work alive, marketing it, etc.

        I have five children and 18 grandchildren, and none of them is interested at all despite my having discussed the potential value of my IP with them (over 70 novels in three major series plus standalones, 9 novellas, around 250 short stories individually and around 30 collections, plus 15 or so nonfictions and all the blogs, etc.

        Guess I’ll start looking around for a charity that might be interested. I’d really like someone to get some use out of it.

        • dwsmith

          You have a thousand ways to go. Some intern in business with a chance of inheriting all that and making a great living from it would be interested, for example.

  • Alexander Boukal

    I find it absolutely rediculous that any writer of any stage would just throw away their writing like that? Passing your writing and cash flow to your heirs aside, why would you mistreat your fans like that– fans who have been enjoying your stories for years or would-be fans who just heard about you and need stories in print to be both aware of you and have easy access to your writing.
    I find it hard enough to pick up books from authors I want to read that were published more than a decade ago and are locked under the hard grip of traditional publishing houses who for some dumb reason don’t reprint these great works. For example, it is only possible to buy the Sword And Sorceress anthology series from used book sites like Amazon and Ebay. Nobody has bothered to keep that anthology series in print.

    When will the pop-up classes from the make 100 fantasy stories kickstarter be sent out?

  • Larissa Lyons


    A great reminder to us all. And I am in complete agreement with you – astonished that anybody would think to destroy their work and not give others (heirs, etc.) the ability to mine it for potential gold.

  • Philip

    As a father of two, and uncle to three, I would love for each of these heirs to prosper from my IP and frankly would also be thrilled if they personally finished my work or added to my worlds. It sounds not only like a good financial gift to them but a loving way to keep my memory alive.

  • Kate Pavelle

    The act of “throwing it all away” is nihilistic, hopeless, and sad. I don’t know whether all these people were young, and perhaps the proponents of “leave no trace.” Leaving no trace is great principle for hiking and otherwise being in nature. Having a zero carbon footprint is a fine goal, but it’s not about destroying one’s work in one great Farnheit 451 Death Party.

    No clue where these writers are coming from – but if I had that attitude, I could never take my writing seriously. I don’t know how they manage.

  • Jason M

    Some people write just to put a middle finger up to the world. They don’t see writing as a vehicle for copyright, or building wealth, or anything else. It’s just a big overreacting ego.

    • dwsmith

      And that is their problem, Jason. I don’t teach those types. They are lost before they start, sadly.

  • Suzan Harden

    Thanks for the continued kicks in the pants, Dean. I need them.

    It’s hard for younger folks to think that far ahead. I had “the talk” with my son this week about the changes I’m planning for my estate in regards to my IP. When I started laying out the timeline for copyright, it gobsmacked him. “I’ll have great-grandchildren before it runs out!?”

    My phone conversation with our kid prompted my husband to ask what I wanted done with any unfinished works. I said I needed to think about that a little bit more. I admit I don’t like the idea of anyone else touching my stuff, but that’s my ego talking. And I realized I was being as ridiculous as some of my past legal clients in thinking I could control stuff after I’m dead. LOL

    • dwsmith

      Amazing how suddenly, when faced with the amounts, possible heirs start to perk up.

      And yes, just let it all alone, let others after you are gone figure out how best to build your career. It will be making them money, after all, if you set it up right.

  • Ryan M. Williams

    It shocked me when Rob Wilkins talked about destroying Terry Pratchett’s unfinished and unpublished work. Sounded crazy. Pratchett collaborated with other authors while alive, why not have someone else finish it? Just didn’t get that at all.

  • Martin Barkawitz

    Very good and important point, Dean. I just got the rights back for many novels ) wrote 20 years ago und now I am busy to publish them all again, but this time without a publishing house 😉 These pieces of work were invisible for many years, and now my “back list” grows bigger day after day … what a wonderful feeling. And in my will I fixed exactly what to do with my novels when I am gone. – And these young writers you told us about? I have no words for such disrespect for their own work.

  • Teri Babcock

    There is a practise in the visual arts world of curating and destroying the lesser works of the artist — in the belief that removing work with lower levels of skill and leaving only that which shows vision and mastery will strengthen the reputation of the artist and the value of the remaining work.

    I suspect some of that attitude is infects the thinking of the writers who intend to destroy their own work.

    • dwsmith

      Teri, maybe, but I tend to think of it as a writer not taking the time to understand copyright combined with sheer stupidity. Both tend to go hand in hand.

  • C.E. Petit

    One other very important note (this is general advice, not legal advice for your particular circumstances; for that, you need your very own lawyer with your very own written retainer agreement, and trust me when I say that only in bankruptcy proceedings is it more essential than for estate planning to have that written retainer agreement before work begins):

    Don’t be Andre Norton.

    If you set up an IP holding entity (which should far more often than not be a corporation, but there are some circumstances in which an LLC is appropriate — and knowing those circumstances is for that retained lawyer), be complete and consistent.

    • Don’t put things in your personal estate plan that you transferred to the corporation; and don’t treat as business-entity assets things that need to be in your personal estate plan (the work you absolutely, positively need to make sure can be revoked under § 203, for example). Make sure that if you write for the business entity as work made for hire (sometimes you’ll want to do this; sometimes not), there’s a clear record so that no overworked probate judge, or Evil Nephew™, comes along later after you’re dead and mischaracterizes both the ownership of the work and where the income stream will go.

    • Ensure that there’s a formal succession plan for the business entity’s management in the business entity’s papers (how to do this varies from state to state and between types of entities), and specifically defer to that plan in your personal estate plan. You can’t just assume that your personal will giving half of the shares to each of your two children will allow the business entity to operate!

    • Ensure that there is a very specific clause in your will (or, in some circumstances, pour-over trust or other probate device) regarding how the ownership of the business entity will be distributed, and if there are specific income bequests (hypothetically, you want half of the income from all of your works about space sharks to go to The American Shark Conservancy) that what you put in your will is also reflected in the business entity’s records.

    • Have that lawyer read both the probate plan and the business entity records to make sure that the language used is both internally consistent and follows governing law. Andre Norton didn’t do this (ever wondered why you haven’t seen any media adaptation or big reissues of her works?). And speaking of Evil Nephews™, just shudder at the estate of James Joyce (but don’t get too close, the kidneys are burning, and they might turn out to be your kidneys).

    • Perhaps most important of all, get good clear instructions on what to do with the recordkeeping for new works that you prepare after the date on which you execute your estate plan. This is where Andre Norton screwed up even further, and you can see some of those screwups in copyright records.

    Now I’m picking on Andre Norton here because there are so many different kinds of screwups in her affairs. She’s far from the worst, even in speculative fiction; just consider Mike Ford. And don’t even try to contemplate Kafka — the story of his estate and writings after his death is, itself, Kafkaesque.

    • dwsmith

      Wow, C.E., thank you!! Great stuff, folks. Great stuff!!

      Yeah, Andre’s estate is, was, and still is a mess. I would love to reprint the story she wrote for me in the first incarnation of Pulphouse but not a chance is that possible. I was on the edges of the mess that was Alan Drury’s estate. (Advice and Consent). And the list goes on and on and on. Octavia Butler’s estate is being held by an asshole of an agent. Why you no longer see her work as well.

      Thanks, C.E. for taking that time. It was not legal advice, folks, but it was all GREAT advice.

      • Kris Rusch

        Actually, Dean, Octavia’s novels are being handled well. That’s why Kindred is a TV show. It’s her short stories that are being handled by a jerk. But your point and C.E.’s are great: most writers’ estates are a nightmare.