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Publishers and authors battle over digital (e-book) rights

Motoko Rich's NY Times story, Legal Battles Over E-Book Rights to Older Books (12-13-09), is about who owns rights to backlist titles covered by contracts written before digital rights emerged. The underlying issue: Publishers are not offering high enough royalties on e-books, which are cheaper to produce than print books. Typically, publishers are offering only 25 percent royalties on e-books. Many prominent authors and agents believe this should be more like a subsidiary rights split than a royalty share. Publishers, desperate to save a sinking ship, may be pushing too far. Rich quotes Andrew Wylie, the agent for the estates of Ralph Ellison and Vladimir Nabokov (whose books are not yet e-books), as saying, “I think the potential danger that publishers run by not talking this through carefully, is that they will be excluded from e-book rights in a significant way.”
Amanda Urban, literary agent for the late Joseph Heller, contends that the e-book rights for Catch 22 rest with the author's estate. Random House contends that contracts give it rights to publication "in book form." What is a book?

Jeffrey Trachtenberg wrote about this issue in the Wall Street Journal 12-12-09: Random House Claims Digital Rights to Past Books (If this link doesn't work, google the title and Nat Sobel and the full story may come up.) Random House claims that "the exclusive right to publish 'in book form' or 'in any and all editions'" includes digital rights. But Random House lost its 2002 suit to prevent RosettaBooks publish author-licensed e-book editions of works by William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Robert Parker. Agent Nat Sobel (who represents Knopf authors James Ellroy and Richard Russo) says courts have agreed with the position that contracts 20 years ago didn't include electronic rights. We'll be hearing more about this hot major issue. Authors: read those contracts before you sign them!

You can find many key stories about e-book rights, markets, and battles for control (between publishers and authors/agents, between publishers and Amazon Kindle etc.)at On Amazon's Kindle, the Sony Reader,
and conflicts about e-book markets and rights
, under Publishing and e-publishing on the Writers and Editors website.

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