Sunday, December 13, 2009

Heirs Fight for E-Book Rights

As you might have guessed, just about all the publishing news lately has been on e-books or Kirkus Reviews shutting down. We can’t tackle the both today, so I thought I’d give you some interesting news on e-book rights.

We’ve said before that e-books are really coming into their own now. More and more companies are coming out with competing e-readers and more and more authors are publishing e-books, either on their own, through a company, or via their publisher.

To keep you up to date, today we have news on a fight between authors and publishers about rights to re-issue books in e-book form. One of the groundbreaking fights is between the heirs of William Styron and his original publisher Random House. Although Styron used to be a big name (Sophie’s Choice, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and others), his books are not selling like they used to.

Styron’s family wants to re-issue them as e-books. Random House says they own the e-book rights, even though the contract they signed with Styron was before e-books came on-scene.

This same struggle is going on with books from other authors, like Ralph Ellison, John Updike and Ernest Hemingway. Some have been resolved. Some have not. Not only does the Styron family feel they own the e-book rights, they feel they deserve more than what publishers generally give in digital royalties, since digital books cost less to produce than print books.

There is precedent that supports authors and their heirs, according to an article in The New York Times:
In 2002, Random House sued RosettaBooks, an e-book publisher, for copyright infringement when Rosetta signed contracts with authors — including Mr. Styron — to release digital versions of previously published novels.

In its suit, Random House relied on wording in its contracts that granted it all rights to publish the works “in book form.” But a federal judge in Manhattan denied the publisher’s request for a preliminary injunction, ruling that such wording did not automatically include e-books. An appellate court similarly denied Random House’s request.
In cases where the author’s books were published (and contracts signed) before there came to be e-books and, thus, e-book rights may be in question, negotiations are ongoing. Some have been settled. And for new authors, this is another reason to have an agent. If you don’t, you’ll probably want to consult with an attorney who deals in book rights.
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  1. Good point. My agent tries to think ahead to the NEXT big digital thing to make sure we'll get a piece of that pie.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. What a mare's nest! I can't imagine any court holding with the publishers who have clearly fabricated that they own rights to something that hadn't been invented yet! But there, what do I know. I would love an agent. People keep telling me to get one but it is VERY hard to do here in Canada. You almost need an agent to get an agent and I'm not kidding. I'm thinking of becoming an agent and representing myself. Time for a drink just thinking about this and it is 9:30 in the morning...

  3. Very interesting - it's always a challenge for the laws to keep up with the new technologies.

  4. That ruling really seems to set a precident, though.

    Perhaps authors also need a line in their contrat stating that they keep all rights to book forms not yet in existence!

  5. Diane - good luck on a publisher allowing you to keep that kind of clause in the contract!

  6. Oh dear. The publishing world just gets more and more complicated. It gives me a headache sometimes. No wonder agents get paid to worry about this stuff. They deserve it!

  7. As a new author, I am going to have to keep my eye on this one.

    There is no point in outlining (once again) the changes in publishing as an industry - myriad. And it would be impossible to guess what changes lie ahead, so it will be a neat trick to make contracts now that work favourably for all parties in the future.

    QUESTION: what parallels are there, or precedents might there be in the world of music vis a vis the world of books?

    Musicicans have had to deal with works being re-released and re-issued in many formats over the years (LPs, audio cassettes, 8-tracks, and now digital). Perhaps the changes there (as they have come sooner & faster) can be a guiding light for the book world.

    Cheers, Jill
    "Blood and Groom" is now in stores... in hard-copy, not digital - yet!

  8. Publishing seems lately like a tangled web, getting more and more tricky to navigate :(

  9. It does seem to be tangled, Joanne. Part of it, I suspect, is that we're hearing more about the tangles. Now that we have blogs and easy access to online news, we're more informed, suspicious, and ... scared or worried.

  10. Man, I never thought about this, but it was inevitable.

  11. Though it might be difficult to get a line excluding all things yet to be invented, you might be able to get a line that explicitly states that only the rights stated have been sold.

    Also, an aside, people should really be careful about the rates in the contract for ebooks. Pushing for 50% is not unreasonable.

  12. Excellent points! All the more reason why I will seek reoresentation before launching into the publishing world.

  13. Fascinating thought and excellent point.

  14. If you don't look out for yourself, who will?

  15. Greedy publishers. Wrong-headed beyond reason.

  16. Wow. Who have thought? Good try on the Publisher's part. e-books are new revenue--epecially on books predating e-books. I can see where they could, and probably will, go to their back list and do just this. Sounds like Styron's have beat them to the punch.

    Good advice for newer authors to have an agent to have these rights clearly marked out so far as rights are concerned.

    thanks for the info, Helen. :-)


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