From The Misfortune of Knowing:
In March, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, sitting in Manhattan, handed a victory to HarperCollins in its lawsuit against Open Road Integrated Media over the e-book publishing rights of Jean Craighead George’s award-winning children’s novel, Julie of the Wolves (1972). This “victory” for HarperCollins, however, highlights for authors one of the perils of pursuing the traditionally published route: desperate publishing corporations will stop at nothing to make sure “its” authors go down with the ship.
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- In 1971, author Jean Craighead George signed a contract with HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) to publish Julie of the Wolves “in book form” for a $2,000 advance (just over $11,000 in today’s dollars) and royalty payments between 10-15%.
- Although the grant of publishing rights was in Paragraph 1, the contract also contained a provision (Paragraph 20) that said: “the Publisher shall grant no license without the prior written consent of the Author with respect to the following rights in the work: use thereof in storage and retrieval and information systems, and/or whether through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means now known or hereafter invented … and net proceeds thereof shall be divided 50% to the Author and 50% to the Publisher …” (Emphases mine.)
- The contract between George and HarperCollins also had a “reserved rights” clause that reserved to George “[a]ll rights in the Work now existing, or which may hereafter come into existence, not specifically herein granted.”
- In 2010, Open Road, an e-book publisher founded in 2009, offered to publish the e-book of Julie of the Wolves for a 50-50 royalty split with George. George approached HarperCollins to see if they would match the royalty. HarperCollins wanted to publish the e-book, but insisted on giving George a meager 25% royalty for the Newbery-award winning novel.
- In 2011, George contracted with Open Road to publish Julie of the Wolves in e-book form, which sold around 1,600 copies.
Spurned, HarperCollins filed a lawsuit against Open Road forcopyright infringement on December 23, 2011.* George, who passed away in 2012 at nearly age 93, was never a party to this lawsuit, even though interpretation of the contract between George and Harper Row—whether it assigned e-book publication rights (in 1971!) and whether it was breached—was key to this dispute.
Clearly, through the 1971 contract, George had granted HarperCollins the right to exploit the copyright through printed publication. But now a federal court in Manhattan, in granting the Plaintiff-HarperCollins’ motion for summary judgment, has determined that the 1971 contract also covered later-developed ways of exploiting the copyright (“new uses”).
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In law school, property rights are often referred to as “a bundle of sticks.” When you own something, you can grant another person some rights to that property while keeping others, or you can give them the whole bundle. There’s a big difference between grantingall of the rights in the Work — which would be the whole bundle — and granting the right to publish a Work in book form. So, when a 1971 publishing contract gives rights to the Work “in book form,” that does not necessarily include the right to publish an e-book decades later.
Back in 2001, another judge in the same New York federal court found that a very similar contract (the publishing contract for a variety of works, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) that granted a publisher the right to “print, publish and sell the work in book form” did not grant e-book rights.
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To me, those two points largely answer the question in this case: the “book form” referred to in George’s contract meant printed versions of the Work, and nothing more. Rights to everything else were “reserved.”
But the Court held exactly the opposite, concluding “the e-book format constitutes a permissible extension of ‘book form’ via ‘storage and retrieval and information systems, and/or whether through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means.’” That language comes much later in the agreement, in Paragraph 20 of the contract (see “facts section” above).
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To me, regardless of how the “and/or whether” question is resolved, the overall point of Paragraph 20 remains clear, particularly when viewed in the context of the technology available in 1971. HarperCollins’ memorandum of law gives some examples of what those “storage and retrieval and information systems” could be: in 1969, MIT created “an experimental computer system for accessing the full text of 10,000 journals,” and in 1971, Project Gutenberg was set up to “create electronic books of public domain works that would be stored, retrieved and read on computers.”
That seems to be what the contract was getting at: if the publisher wanted to put the text of the book in some sort of electronic database (either then known or later invented)— which under copyright law would require its own separate license — then George had the option of saying “no” or of receiving 50/50 royalty.
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At the end of the day, this case suggests that one of the ways big publishers are trying to stay afloat in the current market is by holding e-books of popular authors for ransom, a strategy that has now been blessed by the Southern District of New York.
The shaky legal reasoning in the HarperCollins v. Open Road Mediacourt opinion will likely do nothing but encourage publishing corporations to threaten authors with years of litigation if they dare to try to bargain for even equal treatment (such as a 50-50 split) for “new uses.”
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Well, if authors have any bargaining power at all, it may be worth it to consider the possibility of limiting copyright grants to ways of distribution known at the time of the contract. However, a better course of action may be to avoid traditional publishing entirely.
Link to the rest at The Misfortune of Knowing