February 28, 2012
Who Owns e-Book Distribution In Older Titles?
Anyone interested in e-books, the rights of authors, and how big content operates should take a look at this article from the Law Technology we site. It’s a report on a case now at the District Court level and guaranteed to work its way through the New York courts no matter how it turns out. The dispute is between HarperCollins start-up e-book publisher Open Roads. The latter recently published an e-book version of Julie of the Wolves, first published in book form by HarperCollins in 1972. The essential dispute is that an e-book is another form of a book as contemplated by the contract between the publisher and the author.
That would be cut and dried but for precedent from a similar case in 2001 between Random House and Rosetta Books where Random House was denied a preliminary injunction preventing Rosetta Books from publishing electronic copies. That denial was upheld on appeal pending a more developed record. The case was settled before that happened, setting the stage for the current case. As a side note, some of the books mentioned in the Rosetta case are for sale as e-books from the Rosetta web site.
The article states that the authors are not litigants in either case, though Jean Craighead George, author of Julie of the Wolves, is said to be fully behind Open Roads. She is quoted as saying "When I signed that contract in 1971, eBooks did not exist so I could not have granted those rights. I am with Open Road all the way." She intends to intervene.
One of the elements this case highlights to me is the lack of recognition of the author in all of this. It seems from the publisher’s perspective they play no role in what happens to the book once the copyright is assigned. Here’s your money, now go away unless we need you for the book tour or something. Copyright is supposed to encourage creativity, at least that’s what Congress says when it considers term extensions. In a world where creative works are nothing more than inventory it’s kind of refreshing to see an author calling out a large publisher on a contract written over forty years ago. It’s true that today’s book contracts foreclose cases like this from arising. Nonetheless, the result may give older authors the chance and control to redistribute older works in new form. [MG]