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Legal Battles Over E-Book Rights to Older Books

28 December 2011

From the New York Times in December, 2009:

William Styron may have been one of the leading literary lions of recent decades, but his books are not selling much these days. Now his family has a plan to lure digital-age readers with e-book versions of titles like “Sophie’s Choice,” “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and Mr. Styron’s memoir of depression, “Darkness Visible.”

But the question of exactly who owns the electronic rights to such older titles is in dispute, making it a rising source of conflict in one of the publishing industry’s last remaining areas of growth.

Mr. Styron’s family believes it retains the rights, since the books were first published before e-books existed. Random House, Mr. Styron’s longtime publisher, says it owns those rights, and it is determined to secure its place — and continuing profits — in the Kindle era.

The discussions about the digital fate of Mr. Styron’s work are similar to the negotiations playing out across the book industry as publishers hustle to capture the rights to release e-book versions of so-called backlist books. Indeed, the same new e-book venture Mr. Styron’s family hopes to use has run into similar resistance from the print publisher of “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller.

. . . .

Backlist titles, which continue to be reprinted long after their initial release, are crucial to publishing houses because of their promise of lucrative revenue year after year. But authors and agents are particularly concerned that traditional publishers are not offering sufficient royalties on e-book editions, which they point out are cheaper for publishers to produce. Some are considering taking their digital rights elsewhere, which could deal a financial blow to the hobbled publishing industry.

. . . .

“This is a wide open frontier right now,” said Maja Thomas, senior vice president for digital and audio publishing at the Hachette Book Group.

While most traditional publishers have included e-book rights in new author contracts for 15 years, many titles were originally published before e-books were explicitly included in contracts.

. . . .

In the case of Mr. Styron, who died in 2006 at age 81, the eight titles his family wants to re-release as e-books were published in print before 1994. This fall, Mr. Styron’s estate reached an agreement with a new company, Open Road Integrated Media, founded byJane Friedman, the former chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide, and Jeffrey Sharp, a film producer.

. . . .

Ms. Styron said her family was happy with the job Random House, and their father’s editor, Robert Loomis, had done for Mr. Styron’s work. But with e-books, she said, “we didn’t feel that we were getting any similar kind of full-court press.”

In his letter on Friday, Mr. Dohle said that authors were precluded “from granting publishing rights to third parties.” Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said the company expected to “continue to publish the Styron books we own in all formats, including e-books.”

Mr. Sharp, president of Open Road, said in an e-mailed statement: “We are confident in our agreements and only make deals with parties who represent to us that they own the rights.”

Several publishers who say they retain e-book rights on old contracts are working to amend those agreements to insert digital royalty rates. A spokesman for Simon & Schuster, Adam Rothberg, said the company has amended many old contracts. “Our plan is to publish all our backlist in e-book form,” he said.

. . . .

There is some precedent for arguments over e-book versions of backlist titles. In 2001, 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.” In its letter to agents on Friday, Random House invoked the same wording to defend its right to publish e-books of backlist titles.

In 2001, a federal judge in Manhattan denied Random House’s request for a preliminary injunction against RosettaBooks, ruling that “in book form” did not automatically include e-books. An appellate court similarly denied Random House’s request.

The case never went to trial. In a settlement, Random House granted Rosetta a license to release e-book versions of 51 titles. Under a different agreement with Mr. Styron, Rosetta also published two of his books, though its license to do so has since expired.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Big Publishing, Contracts, Ebooks

3 Comments to “Legal Battles Over E-Book Rights to Older Books”

  1. Way to tick authors off–sue them because you don’t think the book they wrote is theirs. Forget the niceties, go straight to the thuggery. 2 years ago they would have given Mr. Styron’s family a big…well two letter acronym dismissal, today it’s “See you in court”.

    Is this a mark of an industry imploding or not.

  2. Another potential use for Open Road: challenging old contracts when the author (or the author’s estate) is overwhelmed by the thought?

    • There’s a thought. However, a suit over copyright, which Harper Collins has filed, may activate indemnity obligations on the part of the author or, as in this case, the author’s heirs.

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