Let's cover the basics first before going on to your actual question. The book will be a literary work
for the purposes of copyright, and depending on the nationality of the author and where it was published, copyright in it will last for the lifetime of the author plus, usually, 50 or 70 years. For the UK, European Union and USA it's 70 years from the end of the year the author dies. The law applies in exactly the same way to self-published works as it does to conventionally published works, and indeed works that have never been published*. In the main, the rest of my response is based on the author being a UK resident. I won't cover the place of first publication here because it would make a long answer even longer. Please come back if you would like me to say something about that in a separate reply.
Ownership of the copyright can pass to someone else, usually by a written deed of assignment, although it can also pass via a will or if there was no will, the normal legal rules for intestacy. In this case it appears that the author may have set up a company specifically to deal with the rights
which a copyright owner has, and possibly for tax purposes. The assignment can transfer all of the rights, or just a set of selected rights, and it can also be limited by time and/or territory. So for instance with a conventionally published book, an author can assign his or her rights to separate publishers on different continents, and also assign the film rights to a third company, if that is what he/she wants. An assignment can include what are known as reversionary clauses which might say that, for instance, copyright ownership should revert to the author after a certain period of time, or on the death of the author or dissolution of the company etc.
By converting the book into a script you would be making an adaptation
, which is something that requires the authorisation of the copyright owner. Your new work would then be a dramatic work and would have its own separate copyright protection, based on your lifetime etc.
So to return to your specific question. I think the starting point is the company that the author set up. If the company was incorporated (ie it was a limited company) there will be records about the company at Companies House
in the UK, and similar arrangements will apply if the author was resident outside the UK. From the company records you should be able to see its current status, for instance if it is still active and if so, who the company directors are. Helpfully, in the UK the register provides an address for the directors. If the company has been wound up or ceased trading, there should still be a record of the last directors and their addresses, so you should contact them to find out what happened with the copyright, which would have been an asset of the company, quite possibly the only asset! If the company ceased trading and only the author was listed as the director at the time, the copyright is likely to have passed back to her personally and so, on her death, would have formed part of her estate, which I will deal with in the next paragraph. If there were some other circumstances surrounding the cessation of the company, it may well have gone into liquidation and the assets passed to a creditor or to the Treasury Solicitor's Department
. See the end of the next paragraph for more on this.
If the company was not incorporated, the author is likely to have been operating as a sole trader, which means that the assets of the company were still part of her personal property and so the copyright will have passed in accordance with her will, or if there was no will, via the intestacy rules
. If she was resident in England or Wales, you can find some details about her will from the Probate Registry
. Arrangements for wills in Scotland and Northern Ireland differ slightly, but I won't cover them here as you can use Google to get more details. For England and Wales the details from the probate registry should include the name of the person to whom probate or administration was granted. Put simply, this will usually be the person who dealt with her estate and who should know what happened about the copyright. If she died without making a will, her estate will have been passed on to some other family member(s) according to a strict order of precedence (see the link
on intestacy above). Again there is a slightly different system for each of the nations of the UK. Once you have identified, from your personal knowledge of the family, the likely main beneficiary, that is the person who will now own the copyright. If there were absolutely no heirs, her estate will have passed to the State, in what is known in legal jargon as bona vacantia
. Such matters are dealt with by the Treasury Solicitor's Department
whom you should contact. It is unlikely they will be aware of the existence of intangible assets such as copyright.
Assuming that you still haven't located an owner for the copyright, there is one more, admittedly long shot, line of inquiry. That is to see if the author had registered her copyright interest with a copyright collecting society - the usual one in this case being the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society
. This is not that likely since such organisations are set up to deal with conventionally published books. That said they do deal with on-line sellers such as Amazon, so if this particular book had an ISBN, it is just possible that ALCS may have a record for this author.
If all else fails and you are based in the UK, you can apply for an orphan works licence from the IPO
, provided that you can demonstrate that you have carried out a dilligent search as outlined above. However this scheme was set up to exploit the orphan work itself, rather than to gain permission to make an adaptation, so you may need to first check with the IPO staff that this is a viable use of the scheme. If it is, a bonus arising from this would be that you would then have the right to republish, for the next 7 years, the book of your late friend, in addition to being able to make your play.
*To be strictly accurate some very old works which have never been published may remain in copyright until 2039 for historical reasons, but that doesn't apply to what we are discussing here.