Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Book is a Book

Subtitle: Legal Reasoning and New Technology

You look over your shelves for something to read and see an old copy of Catch 22, pick it up and spend some pleasant time reading the book.

You got a Kindle for your birthday. But you can't download Catch 22. What's up?

Joseph Heller's estate and Simon & Schuster are fighting, that's what's up. S&S has the publishing rights for the "book;" but, the family says those rights don't extend to an "e-book." The fight isn't esoteric: the print book sells to the tune of 85,000 copies a year due to it being on hundreds of school reading lists. The family wants a bigger cut of "e" sales, S&S says they get the old print royalty.

"While most traditional publishers have included e-book rights in new author contracts for 15 years, many titles were originally published before e-books were explicitly included in contracts.

And with electronic readers like the Kindle from Amazon and the Nook from Barnes & Noble attracting new readers and sales of e-books growing exponentially, authors and publishers are trying to figure out how best to harness the new technology."

And of course, who gets what part of the money.

S&S reasons that it made a deal to publish Heller's books, it didn't talk about paper and electronic media, S&S should be able to put Catch 22 on the Kindle. A book is a book is a book.

The family reasons that there were no Kindles extant when the deal was done, "books" were implicitly paper books, we didn't do a deal for an electronic book, we want a better deal.

Authors and publishers will work it out. In the meantime, lawyers will write, ironically, using electrons on their computers, "reams" of paper setting out the the arguments for each side.



Posol'stvo the Medved said...

From my perspective:

Heller's estate is right.

S&S is wrong.

But no big company is in it NOT to make money, and if they can find a way to make even more money, they will generally do it.

I am continually dismayed by the making of decisions based primarily on the profit motive.

Which is why I could never be in business for myself. I'd starve to death.

Dave said...

Were it just me, I'd side with the estate and you Pos. As a lawyer, depending on what the contract said and with a little research, I could probably make the argument either way. But, that's why the lawyer was an ass the other day.

I actually do find the law's intersection with new things to be fascinating. In fact, law within the "margins," what I do day in and out, is mostly boring. You pretty much know what the answer is, your only job is to convince the other side or a judge you are right. Then there's the case that is right next door to what most people agree on - which way should it go?

Jim Donahue said...

That's some catch, that Catch-22.

(For what it's worth, I worked in book publishing from the mid-'80s to the early '90s. And I recall clauses in contracts that said basically, "We have the rights for formats yet to be invented." Either the publisher purchased the rights, or the agent reserved them on behalf of the client--usually the latter--for selling to someone else. I don't know when that started to be a standard part of contracts, though.)