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.