Monday, April 26, 2010

Bicentenne-mail!... I Mean, Post

That's right, mes auteurs, today marks PMN's 200th post. And, much like Strong Bad, I feel the need to celebrate this arbitrary milestone unnecessarily. All of you, quick! Look under your chairs! That's right, you're all going home with four dust bunnies, a half-dozen stale Cheerios, and a water-stained, dog-eared copy of John Gardner's The Art of Fiction! O joy! O rapture!

...in serious bicentennial-type business, it seems that The Big House is relinquishing e-rights to the works of William Styron. While Random House indicated last year that contract clauses like "in book form" implicitly give publishing houses e-rights to any book they publish (e-book rights weren't specifically delineated in contracts until about fifteen years ago), they seem to be reversing their decision with regard to Styron's estate. Speaking for the company, Stuart Applebaum says that the decision is "an exception" and their "understanding is that this is a unique family situation."

The question, of course, is whether there will be (to quote Richard Curtis) "a spate of 'me toos'" in which authors decide to legally challenge their publishers' implicit rights to their books in e-format (assuming those rights weren't negotiated specifically after 1995) and attempt to e-publish with other companies. While I'm certainly not a lawyer, it seems to me that a company as large as Random House wouldn't surrender rights like these unless they believed Styron's lawyer(s) had a strong legal argument that the e-rights to his works were the property of his estate. It's possible that there's something unique to Styron's contract(s) at work here, but it seems much more likely to me that his family's legal team is making the case that Random House didn't specifically acquire electronic rights to his work, and therefore they remain with the author (or in this case, the author's estate).

What do you think, gentle readers? Do phrases like "in book form" include media that didn't exist (and perhaps weren't even really imagined) at the time the contract was signed? If you were (or are!) in this kind of situation, how would (will) you handle it?

10 comments:

  1. I'm sorry, but RH and the pubs are reaching legally on the post-contract grabbing of e-rights. You can't sign away rights to something that doesn't exist. That's like saying my parents left their house to me in their will. But my right doesn't materialize until they die, so I can't sell their house if they're still alive. (Yes, I know it's not quite the same, but it's the first analogy I could come up with on limited caffeine.)

    The publishers would have a better leg if they didn't start including the specific e-rights clause a few years. I'd argue they knew print books and e-books were two different rights, otherwise they wouldn't have added the e-rights clauses to the contracts.

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  2. no, it can't possibly mean "including media that did not exist at the time the contract was signed". How can something be "implied" like that? If this happenned to me, I might be tempted to shag the editor/agents wife/husband/dog, as "payback"... but that would depend on how much money I made, and whether the wife/husband/dog was worth a poke...

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  3. No, it doesn't. It's either a delaying tactic or an attempt to three-card monty the definition into place where it wasn't before. If you were to work inside Random House's production department, they would tell you without having to ask a superior or look it up in a manual that they have to clear the project with the rights department before publishing a finished e-version.

    It's media publication 101. It's something that every new person learns at the onset and will, within the first few years of their career, witness a lawsuit when someone skipped this step to save time.

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  4. Absolutely not. If the technology to make use of the right does not exist, neither does the right. This is not the US Constitution where rights not specified can be reserved. Unless that's written specifically into the contract, and even then, it's sketchy.

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  5. I think it needs to be specific and spelled out in the agreement. If the tech didn't exist then, it's not in the contract. Of course lawyer jargon makes everything so nebulous, they can argue anything.

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  6. I predict we'll be seeing LOTS of drama with this in the future. They wouldn't play hardball with the Styron estate because it would've gotten too much bad publicity, but they're not just going to roll over on this.

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  7. Um, I think my dust bunnies ate my Cheerios(tm) and multiplied . . .

    Seriously though, it is an awesome day! Not only did you reach 200 posts, today was also the day I finished the rough draft of my novel! Hooray for us both! :)

    Rebecca
    http://rebeccatlittle.blogspot.com/

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  8. "In book form" seems like a vague phrase. Who's to say the phrase doesn't include all forms of incarnations of the work?

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  9. The courts have already decided on that issue--unless a contract specifically states "e-book," the rights cannot be inferred. But those big boys refuse to accept the legal answer, harassing agents and guilds alike.

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