I'm trying to determine how a literary work should be registered -- as a derivative work with two authors, or as a derivative work with me as claimant and author? Or neither? Details:

  • My mother wrote a manuscript for a children's book years ago and shared it with me a few years back. She died last year.
  • I have since taken her original text-only word document manuscript and 1) edited a lot of the text > 50%, and 2) created illustrations with an external freelancer (work made for hire) for every letter.
  • The original text she wrote was neither registered nor published under US Copyright.

Effectively, my mother and I will have both contributed to the final published children's alphabet book. She wrote some of the original text, and I rewrote/adapted and edited it, and had illustrations created for everything, and have had the book put together.

How should I register this?

  • Copyrights don't need to be registered to be enforced. Your mother held a copyright on the original work from the moment it was written.
    – Ron Beyer
    Jul 18, 2020 at 19:44
  • @RonBeyer please don’t answer in comments
    – Dale M
    Jul 19, 2020 at 3:53
  • @DaleM No offense, but which part of this question did I answer?
    – Ron Beyer
    Jul 19, 2020 at 4:37
  • 1
    Who inherited her rights? Was there a will? Are you the sole heir?
    – Polygnome
    Jul 20, 2020 at 14:19
  • 1
    You might want to add a jurisdiction tag. Where I am, absent of a will saying otherwise, the husband would inherit everything and children only when there is no spouse. Thus while you might have physical access to the manuscript, you might not actually have the right to publish her work, at all.
    – Polygnome
    Jul 20, 2020 at 14:34

1 Answer 1


As Polygnome points out in the comments, the first step is to determine who owns the original copyright on your mother's work now. This will be her heirs. If you are the sole heir then no problem. If the copyright was explicitly left to you in her will, also no problem. If there are multiple heirs and no explicit assignment of the copyright, then problem.

The copyright will probably be considered part of the chattels of the estate (i.e. everything except real estate). If those are allocated fractionally (e.g. half each to two siblings) then the copyright probably followed that principle, unless you have already come to some agreement about it.

If you are on good terms with the siblings then the best bet is to just make a deal for their part of the copyright. You could just ask them to sign it over to you, or you could cut them in for a percentage of future royalties. That makes the situation 100% clear, and any publisher is going to require 100% clarity before they consider offering a contract.

Once you have the whole copyright you can go ahead and register. I've looked through the registration process and it doesn't actually ask about derivative works. What it wants to know is whether you own the copyright, and who were the authors (including works for hire). So just fill it in on that basis.

  • Nothing of my mom's has been distributed or formally determined who will get what since her passing. She was estranged from my family, so my sibling never saw her. My step dad (70+) still lives in their same apartment. I am concerned that if he passes without a will, I don't know who would own/get what. Also -- what type of document do you recommend to declare the copyright ownership between heirs? Copyright Assignment?
    – tands
    Jul 20, 2020 at 14:54
  • 3
    @tands I think at this point you need to talk to a lawyer. We can't offer legal advice. Strictly speaking I've gone outside the guidelines on this already, but as long as it was just a manuscript I saw no harm in it. With an entire estate and a messy family situation there is no substitute for proper legal advice. Jul 20, 2020 at 17:44
  • If e.g. a will provided that someone was to receive a desk and the contents thereof, and the desk happened to contain an unpublished manuscript or camera film, would the transfer of the "contents" of the desk include the transfer of the copyrights on the materials therein if nothing else in the will or other known documentation said anything about the works in question?
    – supercat
    Sep 30, 2022 at 18:13

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