Random House’s e-book rights grab

by Jim

The Wall Street Journal has an article on a letter that Random House CEO Markus Dohle sent out to agents on Friday. In the letter, Dohle casually mentioned his belief that Random House owns the digital rights to their entire backlist. Slow down, Smokey!

There’s a reason that almost all good publishing contracts include language that rights which are not specifically being acquired are reserved to the author. That language was placed there for the author’s protection specifically in the event of developments like electronic publishing technology—forms that couldn’t be foreseen at the time of the contract’s initial signing.

To say that electronic rights are suddenly included in the phrase “book form” is disingenuous. If that’s the case, why did later contracts go on to specifically list electronic publishing rights as negotiable terms in addition to the printed book rights? It’s also impossible to argue that ebooks were considered part of traditional book rights well before they were even a twinkle in Amazon’s eye.

We’re seeing a lot of publishers engaging in these sorts of rights grabs now and a lot of them are using semantics to pretend they’ve always had rights that were not, in fact, included in the purview of the original contract. And it isn’t just limited to ebooks. It makes sense that in times of economic troubles, publishers will be trying to hold onto absolutely every potential source of income that they can. But that doesn’t make it right or acceptable.

There’s a whole lot more conversation that’s a’comin’ on this one. Stay tuned.

7 Responses to Random House’s e-book rights grab

  1. Stacy McKitrick says:

    It's information like this that I realize how important an agent is. Thanks for keeping us informed!

  2. Alli says:

    Oh boy… this is going to be very interesting to watch it unfold. Thanks for mentioning this, Jim!

  3. Blee Bonn says:

    Wow – thanks for the info.

  4. Susan Quinn says:

    Wow. Thanks for the heads-up on this. Things just keep shifting under our feet, no?

    Thanks for the great post!

  5. Nathan says:

    Really interesting. I can't help but see both sides to this issue, even though I'm more inclined toward the author's side.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Simply saying you have those rights doesn't make it so. Reminds me of an Abraham Lincoln quote, something to this effect: "If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a dog have? Five? No, calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one."

    Those rights should obviously be negotiated, not flat-out stolen.

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