All About Estates

Royalties She Wrote: Angela Lansbury, Jessica Fletcher and literary executors

This Blog was written by Jane Martin, Scotia Wealth Management

The recent passing of Angela Lansbury has me engulfed in an impromptu “Murder She Wrote” festival, and like any good estate planning professional (tell me I am not alone in this), I’ve been thinking about whether fictional Jessica Fletcher had her affairs in order. WE all remember Jessica don’t we? The mystery-author/amateur sleuth, played with witty aplomb by Angela Lansbury, who pedalled around New England solving grizzly murders? What will happen to her publishing rights? Did she name a literary executor? What is a literary executor other than an unused clause in my set of precedents?

The label “Literary Executor” calls to mind a person appointed to deal with dusty boxes of letters and diaries, charged with the burden of monitoring contracts with book publishers and the photocopying of belles lettres for undergraduate humanities courses exploring the use of bird imagery in late 20th Century satirical sketch comedy (well, that might just be me).

In fact, a literary executor is an executor named to deal exclusively with intellectual property issues in an estate. They can be the executor of a will-maker’s general estate or a separate individual with specialized knowledge of the industry in which the will-maker’s intellectual property was created.  It might do us well to start using the term “intellectual property executor” for this officer of estate administration.

So what of Jessica Fletcher’s intellectual property? If she’d been a real person living in Canada, what would happen to her life’s works?

The copyright she owned over her gripping page-turning whodunnits would expire 50 years after the end of her year of death (i.e. December 31, 2022 plus 50 years) – although there is a move afoot to amend Canadian copyright law and if enacted, copyright would last an additional 20 years after date of death. [i] Had Jessica Fletcher patented a special basket for her ever-present bicycle, that patent would last 20 years from the date of filing. If she trademarked her frequently recited line “I don’t want to alarm you but something very sinister is going on here!” that trademark would have lasted 10 years, and be renewable.

For those professionals advising creators – of artistic works, of technological developments, all types of intellectual property – this is a time where attention to shifting copyright laws is important. In addition to the possible extension of copyright to 70 years post death, there are proposed copyright law amendments which would see visual artists (or their estates) – entitled to compensation when their works are resold through galleries or at auction.  Compensation would be a percentage of the sale price realized on resale, and would be payable while copyright subsists. This has long been the law in other jurisdictions.

Given that intellectual property rights can last for decades after death, we can only hope that Jessica Fletcher had her affairs in order, and that whomever she appointed as her literary executor will live on for years, for clearly they have a lengthy job ahead them.

[i] Bill C-19 was passed by Parliament on June 23, 2022, and will come into force on a date to be determined by the federal cabinet.

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1 Comment

  1. Susannah Roth

    November 3, 2022 - 2:44 pm

    But really, what we want to know is did she leave it all to Grady?

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