Robert McCrum 

The great estate: those global literary brands roll on

Robert McCrum: The recently deceased Dmitri Nabokov made a fortune from his father's estate, while the houses of Fleming, Tolkien et al are equally at home in the digital age
  
  

In the maelstrom of change that's reshaping the literary coastline, there are not many fixed points by which to navigate. Almost all the old landmarks have gone.

The concept of "free" has wreaked havoc with several literary business models. But one literary enterprise appears to be in rude health. The great literary estates of the last century are still doing very good business, and adapting very nicely, thank you, to the digital age.

The recent death of Dmitri Nabokov, who made a fortune out of his father's estate, set commenter frustratedartist wondering about global literary brands still enjoying the benefits of the rule that literary texts remain in copyright for at least 75 years (the figure varies slightly in the USA) after an author's death.

For most writers, this is an almost irrelevant protection. For a handful of former giants, it's a source of massive annual remuneration.

The big names in the literary estate business include JRR Tolkien, TS Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Raymond Chandler, Beatrix Potter, PG Wodehouse and two new additions – Harold Pinter and Ted Hughes. Almost all these estates are run by people who, in some cases, have only the most tangential family connection with the writer in question. But the gold standard for literary estate management is the estate of Ian Fleming.

The creator of James Bond died in 1964. For many years, his heirs were content simply to bank the Bond book royalties, sharing the lucrative movie rights with the films' producer, Albert R Broccoli. But in the 1990s, they started to get commercial. The Fleming franchise – which is what it had become – would run out in 2039, possibly sooner. They should make hay while the sun was shining. So they commissioned "young Bond" (from Charlie Higson) and gave the green light to Sebastian Faulks for another Bond sequel. Today, 007's profile is as high as it has ever been.

Elsewhere, the Agatha Christie estate has been traded like an old master. Last month it was sold again. Watch out for its new proprietors exploiting news ways to make money out of Poirot, Marple et al. These geese lay golden eggs.

Not all the literary estates provide such happy models. TS Eliot died in the same decade as Fleming. His copyrights – in the hands of his widow, Valerie, now a very old lady living in Kensington – have flourished largely by chance. Cats, the musical, made a fortune (upwards of £500m). But Eliot scholars remain unhappy at the restrictions imposed on their use of the Eliot archive.

Most notorious of all: there is no TS Eliot biography authorised by the estate. The poet stipulated in his will that his life should not become the subject of a biography, a genre he despised.

No matter. We already have Peter Ackroyd's remarkable, unauthorised life. Meanwhile, I hear that there's new talk of another Cats production, with new (copyright) material …