The Intellectual Property Rights of Estates

When Michael Jackson’s estate filed suit against ABC Inc. and the Walt Disney Company in May 2018, the world viewed the consequences to unauthorized use of the late celebrity musician’s intellectual property (IP). The estate currently holds all copyright to Jackson’s songs and music video work. The thirty works which the estate owns full rights to were included as part of a two-hour made for television documentary about the artist. Attorney representation in the lawsuit argues that the estate was never approached about license of Jackson’s material for use. The defending parties in the case maintain infringement of the estate’s rights to the property never took place; countering “fair use” of material already in circulation within the media.


Copyright, Control, Contestation

According to New York law, rights to copyright ownership continue as estate rights after a decedent has passed. A gift or bequest provides an executor or trustee explicit instructions for copyright(s) licensing, use, and distribution. Intellectual property transferred to an estate or trust after registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) entitles a registrant continued rights to that work seventy (70) to one hundred twenty (120) years after death depending on type of work, and existing distribution or installation in the public domain.


The matter surrounding the Jackson estate and its ownership of the late artist’s intangible assets illustrates how an individual’s sovereign rights to intellectual property during life, can be contested by third parties post mortem. Without adequate control, an artist who has transferred those rights to an estate or trust may suffer detriment of infringement in the form of lost royalties more than once after death.

Rights to copyright of intellectual property already transferred to an estate or trust can be terminated by beneficiaries in certain circumstances. Planning for the disposition and control of copyright rights after an artist has died is an important estate planning decision to ensure named beneficiaries will continue to hold all rights to innovation and royalties flowing from licensed use of those creative products by third parties.


New York Estate Law Attorney

Copyright ownership is enforceable under federal intellectual property laws and New York statutory rules of estate, trust, and will. An attorney at law offering estate and trust planning services with experience in intellectual property registration of copyright, patent, and trademark will assist an estate client in filing a lawsuit to ensure enforcement of those USPTO registered rights to fair use payment. Ettinger Law Firm is a licensed New York attorney practice specializing in estate law and probate litigation. Contact Ettinger Law Firm for a consultation about an estate law matter involving rights to intellectual property.  

See Related Blog Posts:

Intellectual Property and Estate Planning

Royalties and Estate Planning

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