I would like all my copyrighted works into the public domain immediately upon my death (rather than the current United States law specifying that it will be released 70 years after my death). Is this possible to do, for instance by putting a statement to that effect in my last will and testament?

To clarify, I would like this to be for all works not otherwise specified in my will, including those unpublished. For instance, if I scribbled something on the back of a napkin that becomes valuable after my death, I want it to be in the public domain instead of retaining copyright.

  • I guess you don't have any heirs or don't like the ones you have. Be sure to change your will before having children, though. – phoog Aug 12 '17 at 21:38
  • @phoog Correct, I don't have any heirs, but even if I did have some and wanted them to benefit from my copyrighted work after my death, I would want it to be for a far more limited time than 70 years (perhaps 5-10 years). – Thunderforge Aug 12 '17 at 21:45
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    @gnasher729 My primary source of income is not derived from works that I own copyright for, and to be honest, I doubt that any of it would have any monetary value. It's more about the principle than anything else. Rest assured, when I have kids some day, I will make sure that they will be provided for in the event of my death, regardless of my feelings about releasing copyrighted works into the public domain. Who knows? I may change my mind and decide they can benefit from my stuff until they are 40. – Thunderforge Aug 12 '17 at 22:00
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    @gnasher729: I don't think it's appropriate to criticize someone's choices on this forum. There are plenty of people in the world who choose to donate assets for the public good rather than leaving them to their heirs, so it's not as though this is an utterly absurd notion. – Nate Eldredge Aug 12 '17 at 22:50
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    Technically, your copyrights last 70 years after your death regardless of who owns them or whether you or your heirs have any intention of enforcing them. You may certainly document your irrevocable permission for everyone to freely use them forever, such as various constructs under Creative Commons (i.e., CC0). – Upnorth Aug 12 '17 at 23:10

Under US copyright law, all works are protected by copyright except for US Government works. The concept of "public domain" is not legally well-defined, and is used colloquially to refer to government works, works whose protection has expired, works available to all, and works not copyrightable (such as scientific laws or old software). Under older copyright law, releasing a work without the copyright symbol effectively put the work in the public domain.

One can simply say "I dedicate this work to the public domain", and that is typically taken to be enough. CC0 purports to do this (using more words). However, as far as I can tell, author rights under European law are so strong that it is simply impossible. Releasing works into the public law has to be consistent with other aspects of the law. If you grant an perpetual exclusive right to copy and distribute to a publisher, their right does not go away on your death (a right which they would not have with a real public domain work).

A problem is that an author who makes such a dedication (a bare license) could revoke the license and reassert their copyright. They could be estopped from making that argument. As property, your heirs would inherit the copyright and could (try to) revoke the license. Presumably the courts would not allow them to pursue ostensive infringers. Nevertheless, your plan is neither trivial nor bullet-proof.

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  • For those looking for a citation after "that is typically taken to be enough", at least for US law Daniel J. Bernstein has written a rather nice analysis, including what seems to be the most salient decision from the 9th Circuit: cr.yp.to/publicdomain.html – joseph_morris Apr 18 '18 at 22:46

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