From Writer Beware:
It’s not all that common, but I do see it from time to time in small press publishing contracts that I review: a publisher explicitly claiming ownership of the editing it provides, or making the claim implicitly by reverting rights only to the original manuscript submitted by the author.
Are there legal grounds for such a claim? One would think that by printing a copyright notice inside a published book, and registering copyright in the author’s name or encouraging the author to do so, publishers are acknowledging that there is not. It’s hard to know, though, because it doesn’t seem to have been tested in the courts. There’s not even much discussion of the issue. Where you do find people talking about it, it’s in the context of editors as independent contractors, such as how authors hiring freelancers should make sure they own the editor’s work product, or how freelance editors might use a claim of copyright interest as leverage in payment disputes.
In 2011, Romance Writers of America published a brief legal opinion on its website (still on the website, but unfortunately no longer accessible by the public), indicating that the claim would probably not prevail in court. But that’s the only legal discussion I’ve been able to find.
The legal ambiguity of a copyright claim on editing is good reason to treat it as a publishing contract red flag. But that’s not all.
It’s not standard industry practice. No reputable publisher that I know of, large or small, deprives the author of the right to re-publish the final edited version of their book, either in its contracts or upon rights reversion. One might argue that in pre-digital days, this wasn’t something publishers needed to consider–books, once reverted, were rarely re-published–whereas these days it’s common for authors to self-publish or otherwise bring their backlists back into circulation. But publishers haven’t been slow to lay claim to the new rights created by the digital revolution. If there were any advantage to preventing writers from re-publishing their fully-edited books, you can bet it would have become common practice. It hasn’t.
Link to the rest at Writer Beware and thanks to The Digital Reader for the tip.
PG says this is a carryover from olden days when publishers felt they could bully authors and authors would have to take it.
PG thinks most judges would look askance at an editor’s claim that he/she owned the copyright to the completed work, especially in a situation in which the author had provided an editor with a complete draft of the book and the editor made editorial corrections and suggestions.
Additionally, if a fee for the editor’s services was negotiated in advance and paid according to the agreement of the parties, PG thinks a broad license to use any part of the editor’s work that was provided per the agreement would be implied by the relationship.
You can also look to the custom of the trade, whether, prior to starting work, anyone had mentioned anything about the editor retaining a copyright interest in and to the work, etc.
Additionally, what, exactly, does the editor’s copyright include? A period that replaces a semi-colon in the original ms. and the capital letter that replaces the lower-case letter in the first word following the period?
If, according to US copyright law, the author owned a copyright to whatever the author sent to the editor, how does the editor overcome an argument that, if the editor’s work is potentially copyrightable, it is a derivative work based on the author’s copyrighted original work. Absent some sort of agreement with the author, how does the editor gain an ownership interest in a derivative work?
Here’s what part of what the US Copyright Office says about derivative works in its Circular 14:
A derivative work is a work based on or derived from one or more already existing works. Common derivative works include translations, musical arrangements, motion picture versions of literary material or plays, art reproductions, abridgments, and condensations of preexisting works. Another common type of derivative work is a “new edition” of a preexisting work in which the editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications represent, as a whole, an original work.
To be copyrightable, a derivative work must incorporate some or all of a preexisting “work” and add new original copyrightable authorship to that work. The derivative work right is often referred to as the adaptation right.
. . . .
Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, an adaptation of that work. The owner of a copyright is generally the author or someone who has obtained the exclusive rights from the author. In any case where a copyrighted work is used without the permission of the copyright owner, copyright protection will not extend to any part of the work in which such material has been used unlawfully. The unauthorized adaption of a work may constitute copyright infringement.
So, when did the author grant the editor permission to use the author’s copyrighted work to create a derivative work? If the editor used the author’s work without the author’s permission, none of the editor’s work is entitled to copyright protection.