Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Copyright, Schmopyright

Yes, copyright, that fancy set of U.S. laws (other countries have them, too) that protects you (and your publisher) from having all your (their) intellectual property stolen by some crazy hack. In case you haven't been keeping up with all the PubHubbub this week, the question of copyright has once again been raised in the mini-debacle over the third installment in the late Stieg Larsson's bestselling mystery series. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is already available in Ye Olde United Kingdome, but won't be released in the United States of Awesome until May of next year. In order to compete with on-line retailers like, independent retailers in the U.S. have begun importing and re-selling the U.K. versions. The problem is that the U.S. publisher (Alfred A. Knopf) has already paid for the right to do this, and so anyone who imports the U.K. edition and sells it here in the States is in violation of U.S. copyright law.

Now, I'm all for independent book stores and applaud virtually any means by which they can stick it to The Man (whoever that actually is). However, I am also a fan of the law, and while I sympathize with the situation independents like Murder by the Book are in given the encroachment of Corporate America onto their turf, I can't condone illegal actions. If we bend the copyright rules to level the playing field for indies just this once, what's to stop us from doing so in the future? It's the slipperiest of slopes, bros and she-bros, and I think the eventual solution will have to be a greater international awareness in copyright (and other) law as The E-pocalypse draws ever nearer. Questions on everything from first print rights to electronic distribution will have to be re-thought in the coming decade, and I think cases like this one are an indication of how complex the issues involved will be. What do you think? Will we need some kind of international copyright law to police international sales/Teh Internets? Will e-books make this easier or harder? (I tend to think harder, but then again, I'm afraid of pirates.)


  1. I have nothing to add to this awesome post, so I'll simply list my favorite phrases...

    United States of Awesome
    bro's and she-bro's
    and the "doom" tag has always been in your top five Best Tags of All-Time

    A quick aside, I am NOT afraid of pirates, as I stated HERE on another equally awesome blog.

  2. I gotta agree with Lydia. This is awesomely written. Go, Eric!
    As for what I think, we will need international laws if artists of all stripes are to eat and clothe themselves.

  3. I think you are mistaken about the legal issue. The copyright is an exclusive right to print and sell the book. The rightsholder has an exclusive right to publish the work.

    But once the rightsholder prints the book and sells it to somebody, the book is merely an object. When you buy a book at the bookstore you have purchased a physical object, and you can dispose of it just like any other piece of personal property, without any permission from the rightsholder.

    If the copyright allowed the rightsholder to regulate secondhand sales of the work, then it would be illegal to sell used books.

    If the British publisher is supplying these US bookstores directly, there may be a breach of contract, but if the US booksellers are buying British books at retail and reselling them here, then there is probably nothing illegal about it.

    I know there's been a market for imported DVDs and video games for years, and I'm sure the importation of books is legal as well.

  4. I'm pretty sure the E-readers will complicate this mess. I don't know how, but I believe it will involve donkeys and half-eaten cheese sticks. >.<

    Other than that, I hope you know I love your blog! I was also a fan of the "United States of Awesome" comment :P

  5. Hi Dan,

    From Publisher's Lunch (article here:

    "One aspect of the NYT story that's not made and [sic] explicit, and is of concern to some trade publishers: bulk imports for resale by US retailers (portrayed as a savvy "way to lure customers into paying premium prices") are a violation of copyright law."

    All best & thanks for reading,


  6. When we're dealing with a global market, we must start thinking about global release. How can bookstores compete otherwise?

  7. It looks like my previous comment didn't appear? Is this normal?

  8. Oooh, I THOUGHT it was weird when I visited Ireland back in October someone was already reading Book 3 in that series. I was like, Dude, Book 2 just came out, like, yesterday! Now I understand.

  9. Eric,

    The PM article is phrasing it in a very confusing way.

    The UK publisher and the US publisher each owns a piece of the publication rights. If the UK publisher is selling to US accounts, it is probably exceeding the rights it bought from the author, and infringing on Knopf's rights. I think when the PM writer says it is "of concern to trade publishers," this may be what he is referring to.

    I don't know what kind of "British wholesaler" the bookstores got their copies from. I was under the impression that publishers sold directly to accounts. I think it would likely infringe on Knopf's rights if the British publisher sold in bulk directly to US bookstores.

    But if a US bookseller went to the UK and bought a bunch of copies at retail, I do not think it would be illegal to bring them back and sell them in the US. I know, as a practical matter, that a number of small businesses openly sell imported movies, music, video games and comics, with no repercussions from rights-holders.

    It's possible that, despite the widespread practice of importing and selling legally-produced media from abroad, there is a rarely-enforced statutory restriction of some kind. But I think it's pretty likely that nobody mentioned legal recourse against bookstores in the NYT article because there isn't any.

  10. I agree that we must respect and protect The Law, but the complication is that large businesses employ tactics that are technically legal but create a market advantage that is impossible for small, independent businesses to compete against. Their tactics may be legal, but are they fair? Walmart can sell a new release for $9.99. Joe's Bookshop cannot. This isn't an exact equivalent situation. Knopf paid for the distribution rights and those rights should be protected. But in today's market, in which huge multi-national businesses aggressively undercut small independents, I can at least understand why the smaller companies are looking for any advantage they can grab onto.

  11. This post is all kinds of awesome. And I don't have my own blog of awesomeness to hijack this with, so I'll just stick with "hear, hear!"

  12. They went through this with the Harry Potter books and solved it by having a uniform release date. You could buy books 1,2, & 3 from Amazon.UK many months before they were released in the US or Canada. I had #3 at least four months before you could buy it in the US. When Bloomsbury saw the numbers of how many books the UK Amazon site was shipping overseas, they realized the easiest way to deal with it was limiting the number (2) of copies any one person could pre-order, and having one release date. Seems like if the publishers care, they might have to go this route.

    Interestingly enough, the UK rights to my upcoming book have not sold yet, but you can pre-order the US edition on many foreign Amazon sites, including the UK, France, Denmark, and others.

  13. This is a sticky wicket. Great post, and Keith made some good observations too. Unfortunately, the law and justice don't always jibe. We need Nemesis.

    And she-bros. Sounds like something from a horror flick.:)

  14. As a layman who has studied copyright, I have to agree with Dan on this. If any law has been broken, it's an import law, not a copyright law.

  15. Australia has a law where, if local publishers want to bring out a version of an international book, they must do so within 30 days of the publication of the book in its home country. If they do, booksellers must sell the Australian version, but they don't, then booksellers are free to import the international version. Or at least that's my understanding of it.

    I don't know if other countries will enact a law like this, but I think if publishers want to remain competitive they'll be forced to bring release dates as close to the international (or at least the English-speaking international) release date as possible.

    As for laws regarding e-books, they might do something where you have to be from a certain country in order to buy, say, the US version of the e-book. I can't help thinking they'll either have to do that, or sell global rights for e-books.

  16. Hi Dan—

    Publishers do sell directly to accounts, but independent stores and book wholesalers can both fall under that heading. If accounts are purchasing copies of the U.K. version and distributing them here, it's my understanding that they are infringing on A. A. Knopf's copyright (which includes U.S. distribution). Then again, I'm not a lawyer—I suppose I could ask someone in copyright/publishing law what they make of all this.

    Hi Marilynn—

    It's a little of both, but as mentioned above, my understanding is that Knopf purchased the right to distribute the book in the U.S., and if anyone else does so, they are infringing on Knopf's copyright (which includes said distribution).

    All best & thanks for reading,


  17. Eric,

    As a basic principle, copyright law governs who has a right to reproduce a work for sale. In this case, and in the case for many media properties, that right has been divided among a number of parties by a series of complex deals.

    The copyright holder has given Knopf the right to reproduce the book and distribute it in the US, and the British publisher has the right to reproduce it for sale in the UK.

    These independent bookstores are not reproducing the book at all, so they can't be infringing on copyright. If anyone is violating the copyright, it is the British publisher, by selling in bulk to US booksellers.

    However, as Marilynn notes, these booksellers may be running afoul of some trade regulation. Here is a recent NYT article about how the byzantine US legislative process has left us with over 4,000 distinct federal criminal offenses, many of which are rarely enforced:

    If we assume, for purposes of argument, that importing foreign books for sale in the US is a statutory crime, Knopf probably has no private right of action, which means they can't sue anybody.

  18. I can't quite remember where this quote if from. Oliver Twist, perhaps? "If the law says that, then the law is an ass".

    Couldn't have said it better.

    But copyright restrictions in the Internet age are ridiculous anyway. The dinosaurs are already dead. They just haven't fallen over yet.


  19. Quercus/MacLehose in London bought world English rights from Norstedts in Stockholm. They sold US rights to Knopf. In following the sales rankings on AmazonUK, I have noticed that Quercus & Amazon have been lowering the prices to hype sales to as low as £3.99 for paperbacks. They are now so low that a US bookstore can order directly from AmazonUK, pay retail price + shipping, and make a tidy profit if they sell the hardback at $40-45 in the States. Whether this is a copyright violation I don't know. --Reg Keeland

  20. Nothing more annoying than finding a that certain book/album/film isn't available in "your region" yet.

    Clearly, things need to change.