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Plan for Proper Disposition of Your Literary Estate, as Did Dorothy Parker

If you have a collection of written work, be sure your estate planning addresses who will own and control your estate after you die. Consider whether any royalties from use of the estate will benefit friends or family or, like Dorothy Parker, whether you will be socially conscience and allow the value of your estate to benefit a good cause. Mrs. Parker was a famed writer, acerbic wit and part of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of New York City writers who were all considered media stars when the popular media of the time was magazines. Her greatest asset was her writing, and she created and amassed a large collection of short stories, plays, theater reviews, poems and bon mots. Mrs. Parker’s will stipulated that her literary estate should pass to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for the duration of his life, and then to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People upon Dr. King’s death. The NAACP has benefited over the years from license fees paid by Mrs. Parker’s still-vibrant fan base of authors, musicians, dramatists and playwrights, using her work as the basis of their own creations. Gordon Feinblatt LLC has been fortunate to assist the NAACP for the past 25 years in licensing Mrs. Parker’s works, and continues to do so. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine describes Mrs. Parker’s legacy, her commitment to civil rights, the dispute over her estate and the recent move of her cremains from a memorial at the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore to her family’s burial plot in New York City. At the ceremony at the disinterment, I was honored to say a few words about Mrs. Parker, which are reprinted at the end of this article.

Taking a lead from Mrs. Parker’s estate provides some lessons, even for those whose literary or artistic estate may not be as popular or voluminous as Mrs. Parker’s. Be sure your will fully addresses the disposition of the specific works. Provide for who should own them, who should control them and whether the proceeds from any licenses should be used for any particular purpose. Remember that ownership of tangible objects, such as manuscripts and books, can be owned by one person or entity, and the copyright in what is written can go to a different person or entity. The same is true for artwork and photo negatives when the author is an artist or photographer. You may also want to address whether the works can be sold or not, and other particulars about how they should be displayed, performed or used in the future. When creative works have value and they can be licensed, the work should be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Click here for information about registration.

During your lifetime, you should also be policing against infringement of your works. If they have been published, make sure you and your publisher are looking online to ensure no one is using the works without your permission, and that you are taking action to stop unauthorized uses. Be sure you direct your heirs to continue that process.

If your work is published, you likely have an agreement with your publisher about who owns the work’s future rights. Consider whether upon your death, the publisher will stay in place and would continue paying royalties to your beneficiaries. The rights to your works may be divided: the publisher may control the works and usage in certain media, and the estate may control use of the works and usage in others. Your will should reflect that bifurcation.

If you are famous enough, consider the value of your name and likeness. If you have a domain name that is your name or you have other domain names, be sure the passwords that provide access to those domain names are known to others and are accessible after your death. Your will should control who has rights to those domain names and websites. If there are images of you that you want used in the future to represent you, be sure you have the right to reproduce the images, as generally a photographer owns the right to reproduce the images that the photographer took. Know that if you live in a state that does not recognize your right of publicity once you die, your estate may not inherit those post-mortem rights of publicity.

If you are fortunate enough to have the talent to create a literary estate, as was Dorothy Parker, you should be sure your will addresses the disposition of that estate.

My remarks at the disinterment of Dorothy Parker’s remains from NAACP headquarters in Baltimore on August 18, 2020:

“I realize I should provide a voice for the people I have communicated with for over 25 years who found Mrs. Parker to provide an insightful and current voice, and wanted to use her writings in their own creative works.

“Most every request had a degree of devotion and awe and appreciation for Mrs. Parker’s insight into life and relationships.

“I became a fan and admirer of Mrs. Parker because almost weekly, with every request, I was reminded of how important her thoughts and works are.

“We are here because Mrs. Parker had concern for society and civil rights, and gave her estate to Dr. King, and then the NAACP, in an effort to improve the world. Many people who request permission to use her work acknowledge that foresight.

“By irony, or coincidence, or providence, the most recent request I received to use Mrs. Parker’s work was from a woman who is a Black producer and director, who is a huge Dorothy Parker fan and believes Mrs. Parker’s works are particularly timely. The requestor sees the critical need in the film industry for Black voices and women's voices as storytellers, and believes Mrs. Parker’s works provide ideal content for independent women filmmakers to tell their own stories, and represent themselves. 

“As for me, I remain honored to be a small part of Mrs. Parker‘s legacy and to help promote her voice and spirit through all of the creative people who appreciate all Mrs. Parker has to offer.”

 

Ned T. Himmelrich
410-576-4171 • nhimmelrich@gfrlaw.com