Never, Ever Assume You Can Use a Deceased Person’s Work

Never, Ever Assume You Can Use a Deceased Person’s Work

An author submitted a manuscript to us a couple of weeks ago that contained numerous letters he had exchanged with a lady friend. I, of course, assumed it was his wife but, just to be safe, I asked.

He responded that she’d lived overseas and that she died. On further questioning, it appears he assumed, since the woman stated in her letters that someday she wanted to write a book with him, that meant he owned her work.

Two of his responses were:

“If (she) were still alive we would have written the book together.”


“I will find you the book page numbers where (she) said that she wanted to write a book together.”

After I questioned him more, he said he knew she had a teenage son and parents in that country. I told him, unless she gave him all rights to her work in a legal document, her heirs own her writings. I then suggested the easiest thing to do would be to write to her family, and try to get the copyrights transferred to him.

Since this author made assumptions about copyright law instead of researching it, he ended up wasting countless hours putting together a book that he could not legally publish. He could not (or would not) contact her family and he is now completely revamping his book, removing all her letters. It may take weeks or months.

Sadly, some people think a deceased person’s writings are free for the picking. That is completely wrong and, as with the author above, can lead to months of wasted work. If I hadn’t gotten curious and asked about his “co-author” (many POD publishers don’t because they simply don’t care), this author may have later faced an embarrassing and expensive lawsuit from the woman’s family. And, using someone else’s property for profit without the legal right to do so is just plain wrong.

When in doubt about copyrights, ask a lawyer. Don’t risk your time and money and/or, worse, your reputation, by assuming you own or have the right to use something you didn’t create.

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Angela is not only the publisher of She is President & CEO of,
a self-publishing services company that has been in business since 1998. Ask her anything.


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