Authors Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are running into a little static when trying to publish some of their short stories via Amazon—thanks at least in part to the automation by which Amazon has to run its self-publishing operation.
Lee and Miller have been self-publishing some of their short stories in chapbook form since long before self-publishing became the monster that it is today. They started back in the 1990s, publishing actual paper chapbooks, but in recent years closed down the paper operation and switched to electronic versions.
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Lately, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller have republished four of their previously-published short stories in e-chapbook form. The stories were and remain available as part of a larger Liaden short story collection from Baen.
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They published these stories as a pair of e-chapbooks to Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Baen without any problem—but the trouble came in when it came time to place them on Amazon.
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When it comes to ensuring that someone isn’t trying to pull a fast one by republishing someone else’s content, [Amazon’s] automation effectively takes a similar form to plagiarism-checker Turn It In: if previously-published content appears in a new form, this calls for some special attention.
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Amazon wanted to see reversion letters to the stories, signifying that Baen returned their publication rights to Lee and Miller after their contract expired. However, those stories were never fully sold to Baen to begin with. They sold Baen anthology rights, for the purpose of that anthology, while keeping for themselves the rights to place the stories again elsewhere or self-publish them.
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Sharon Lee explains that, “in the Normal World of Publishing” this sort of thing simply isn’t done. When an author places a work with a new publisher, they sign a contract in which they agree they have the rights to do so. If it later turns out they don’t have those rights, the lawyers come out to play. But never does any publisher require or expect authors to provide a copy of their previous contract with another publisher. Lee writes:
Now, Amazon is in a strange situation; it cannot itself decide if it’s a publisher or a distributor, but in either case the demand for a copy of our contract with our publisher is out of line, and Steve and I will not comply.
Link to the rest at TeleRead
In an update to the OP, TeleRead says Amazon customer service solved the problem. PG is happy to hear that in part because the authors seem like nice people.
PG is usually on the little guy’s/gal’s side in these kind of disputes, but in this case, he understands Amazon’s concerns:
– The plagiarism/copyright infringement checker shows that someone is submitting material that has already been published by another publisher.
– The authors say they have the right to self-publish this material themselves.
– When Amazon asks for a reversion letter from the authors to document their right to self-publish, the authors say they don’t have/need such a letter.
– Amazon understands that if the authors are not telling the truth and the real rights-holder is upset, Amazon will probably be sued for copyright infringement along with the authors.
– Zillions of people are trying to pull some sort of scam on Amazon each day.
What exclusive rights does the owner of a copyright have under US copyright law? (Note that an author typically passes these rights to a commercial publisher under a typical publishing contract.)
17 U.S. Code § 106 provides a summary. PG highlights some language that would reasonably concern Amazon:
Subject to sections 107 through 122, the owner of copyright under this title has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:
(1) to reproduce the copyrighted work in copies or phonorecords;
(2) to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;
(3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
(4) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works, to perform the copyrighted work publicly;
(5) in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, to display the copyrighted work publicly; and
(6) in the case of sound recordings, to perform the copyrighted work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
KDP ebooks are certainly reproductions of copyrighted material. When someone pays Amazon for an ebook, Amazon is certainly reproducing and distributing a copy of the copyrighted ebook to a member of the public.
Although licensing is not expressly mentioned as an exclusive right under 17 U.S. Code § 106, it is difficult for PG to believe that a court would not find licensing to part of the exclusive rights of a copyright owner to control the “rental, lease, or lending” of an ebook.
Considering the above, is it unreasonable for Amazon to ask for a copy of the publishing contract between the authors mentioned in the OP and Amazon?
PG thinks it’s entirely reasonable and would almost certainly would have recommended reviewing the contract between Baen and the authors if Amazon had asked him what it should do.
He probably would have also recommended contacting Baen to confirm that it only had the limited rights the authors claimed to have granted.
The fact that this “isn’t done” in the publishing business will be no help to Amazon if it is sued by someone who has exclusive rights to publish a literary work that appears on Amazon despite what the authors have told Amazon.
Generally speaking, under most commercial publishing contracts, the publisher grabs every right its attorneys can think of from authors whose work is being published. “Anthology only” rights that apply to only a single edition of an anthology are rare birds indeed.
PG says there are a lot of things that “aren’t done” and a lot more things that “are done” in the traditional publishing business that are really bad ideas.
As far as “the Normal World of Publishing” is concerned, that world is what indie authors are fleeing from when they self-publish with Amazon. Amazon is disrupting “the Normal World of Publishing” to the benefit of both authors and readers.
If you want to decrease your chances of ever making a decent living from your books, stick with “the Normal World of Publishing” and the “rules” that apply to that world.