Who owns the rights to electronic versions of books governed by contracts published back in the days when there was no such thing as an e-book?
Typically, the contracts an author signed with the publishers of those books gave the publisher the exclusive right to publish “in book form” or “in any and all editions.” According to the New York Times (hyperlinks added),
In 2001, Random House sued RosettaBooks, an e-book publisher, for copyright infringement when Rosetta signed contracts with authors . . . to release digital versions of previously published novels. In its suit, Random House relied on wording in its contracts that granted it all rights to publish the works “in book form.”. . .
In 2001, a federal judge in Manhattan denied Random House’s request for a preliminary injunction against RosettaBooks, ruling that “in book form” did not automatically include e-books. An appellate court similarly denied Random House’s request.On Friday, however, the Times reports (hyperlinks in original) that “Markus Dohle, chief executive of Random House, sent a letter (pdf) to dozens of literary agents, writing that the company’s older agreements gave it ‘the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats.’” According to Mr. Dohle’s letter:
The vast majority of our backlist contracts grant us the exclusive right to publish books in electronic formats, as well as more traditional physical formats. At the same time, we are aware there have been some misunderstandings conceming ebook rights in older backlist titles. Our older agreements often give the exclusive right to publish “in book form” or “in any and all editions”. Many of those contracts also include enhanced language that references other forms of copying or displaying the text that might be developed in the future or other relevant language that more specifically reflects the already expansive scope of rights. Such grants are usually not limited to any specitic format, and indeed the “form” of a book has evolved over the years to include variations of hardcover, paperback and other written word fonnats, all of which have been understood to be included in the grant of book publishing rights. Indeed, ebook retailers market, merchandise and sell ebooks as an alternate book format, alongside the hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market versions of a given title. Whether physical or digital, the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge to discover stories, ideas and infomation through the process of reading. Accordingly, Random House considers contracts that grant the exclusive right to publish “in book form” or.”in any and all editions” to include the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats. Our agreements also contain broad non-competition provisions. so that the author is precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties that would compromise the rights for which Random House has bargained. We believe the effective exercise of electronic rights is key to the future of publishing and that the combined marketing of print and digital formats increases overall sales and creates the largest possible pool of revenues for authors and publishers, Our efforts and investments in the digital realm perfectly complement Random House’s unmatched physical sales and distribution capabilities, which remain a centerpiece of our business and relationships. (emphasis added)But William Styron’s family disputes Random House’s assertions that it owns the rights to publish electronic versions of Mr. Styron’s books. One problem with Random House’s position is that, despite what Mr. Dohle writes, Random House’s contract with Mr. Styron did not grant to Random House rights that refer to “forms of copying or displaying the text that might be developed in the future,” and, in further contradiction to Mr. Dohle’s words, were quite explicit in being “limited to . . . specific format[s].”
As the District Court decision in the case between Random House and Rosetta Stone makes clear, Styron’s contract granted Random House “an exclusive license to ‘print, publish and sell the work in book form,’ Styron also gave it the right to ]license publication of the work by book clubs,’ ‘license publication of a reprint edition,’ ‘license after book publication the publication of the work, in whole or in part, in anthologies, school books,’ and other shortened forms, ‘license without charge publication of the work in Braille, or photographing, recording, and microfilming the work for the physically handicapped,’ and ‘publish or permit others to publish or broadcast by radio or television … selections from the work, for publicity purposes ….’”
The court reasoned that the “separate grant language . . . to convey the rights to publish book club editions, reprint editions, abridged forms, and editions in Braille . . . would not be necessary if the phrase ‘in book form’ encompassed all types of books. That [language] specifies exactly which rights were being granted by the author to the publisher.”
The court further opined that “a reasonable person ‘cognizant of the customs, practices, usages and terminology as generally understood in the particular trade or business,’ would conclude that the grant language does not include ebooks. ‘To print, publish and sell the work in book form” is understood in the publishing industry to be a ‘limited’ grant.’” (citations and footnote omitted)
Finally, the court pointed out that Random House itself had acknowledged that ebooks are a new medium (and thus, presumably, not within the contemplation of the parties when they entered into their agreements to allocate their respective rights):
In this case, the “new use” – electronic digital signals sent over the internet – is a separate medium from the original use – printed words on paper. Random House’s own expert concludes that the media are distinct because information stored digitally can be manipulated in ways that analog information cannot. Ebooks take advantage of the digital medium’s ability to manipulate data by allowing ebook users to electronically search the text for specific words and phrases, change the font size and style, type notes into the text and electronically organize them, highlight and bookmark, hyperlink to specific parts of the text, and, in the future, to other sites on related topics as well, and access a dictionary that pronounces words in the ebook aloud. The need for a software program to interact with the data in order to make it usable, as well as the need for a piece of hardware to enable the reader to view the text, also distinguishes analog formats from digital formats. See Greenberg v. National Geographic Soc’y, 244 F.3d 1267, 1273 n.12 (11th Cir. 2001) (Digital format is not analogous to reproducing the magazine in microfilm or microfiche because it “requires the interaction of a computer program in order to accomplish the useful reproduction involved with the new medium.”). (citation omitted; hyperlink added).There’s no question the publishing houses are fighting for their very existence. It’s interesting, though, that copyright holders are fighting the publishing companies over those rights. So much of the focus in this area of late has been over Google’s right to copy books to make them searchable so that they could be found and, as a result, purchased or otherwise obtained from the rightful owners of the books themselves. But now it’s the publishers who are trying to stretch the rights they contractually negotiated for decades ago to realms no one imagined at the time.
It will be interesting to see where this goes next. As a contracts professor, my first impression is that Random House isn’t exactly in the strongest of positions.