One aspect many people overlook when dealing with estate planning and estate administration is the ongoing impact creative assets can hold. Whether you have a tiny royalty interest in an anthology or a major collection of song-writing credits, if you are a creative, it’s important to include those assets in your estate plans. You — and, in the future, your heirs — also need to pay attention to legalities such as copyrights, which is something the Abbott and Costello heirs are learning.
The heirs originally sued the writer and producers of a play that lifted a large portion of the comedy team’s famous “Who’s on First?” routine. The lawsuit, which claimed that the play used the spirit and heart of the routine, was originally dismissed by a judge who said the material was used under fair use practices because it was transformational. On appeal, a judge disagreed with that decision but still ruled in favor of the defendants.
The judge in the appeal decided that the heirs had not made a good case for copyright ownership of the material. One theory the heirs floated was that the skit was copyrighted under Universal Pictures’ licenses of the movies that the skit appeared in during the 1940s. The heirs claimed that since those licenses were passed into the estate, the heirs had ownership of the material.
Abbott and Costello performed the skit prior to those movies, though, and copyrighted the material in 1944 themselves. The duo never renewed the copyright, though, and there doesn’t seem to be evidence that the copyright for the skit was passed onto the heirs in any way. It’s actually possible that one of the most famous comedy skits in the world is now in the public domain.
Source: Reuters, “Abbott and Costello heirs strike out in ‘Who’s on First?’ lawsuit,” Nate Raymond, Oct. 11, 2016