Publish someone else's copyrighted book, DON'T go to jail.
July 13, 2001 9:29 AM   Subscribe

Publish someone else's copyrighted book, DON'T go to jail. (I can't believe no one else has posted this yet: at least, I couldn't find anything that looked relevant). "A U.S. federal judge has rejected Random House's request for a preliminary injunction to stop an online publisher from selling electronic versions of Cat's Cradle, Sophie's Choice and six other books. U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein ruled on Wednesday that the right to print, publish and sell the works in book form in the contracts at issue does not include the right to publish the works in the electronic format."
posted by maudlin (7 comments total)
maudlin, it's not as cut-and-dry as you're presenting it.

Rosetta Books, the publisher of the electronic versions of the novels, has contractual arrangements with the authors of all the books involved to publish the novels in eBook form. Random House has contracts with the same authors, allowing them the right (for individual novels) to "print, publish, and sell the work in book form." The purpose of this court case was to determine if that phrase included the electronic versions of the book, or if the author could form other contractual arrangements, with other companies, that would encompass those versions of their works. Judge Stein ruled that they could -- that none of the contracts that Random House had with the authors prohibited those authors from doing so.

If you want to read the decision, it's available on the web (albeit in PDF format).
posted by delfuego at 9:49 AM on July 13, 2001

Actually, Maudlin, I think you might be missing the point here with this one. The decision of the courts is extremely author-centric ... it essentially argues that a print publishing contract does not immediate grant that publisher the right to the ebook edition as well. It does nothing to reduce an author's right in their own copyrights (as your headline seems to suggest it does).

"Random House, the world's largest English-language trade publisher, argued that electronic rights were implicit."


"It was the second court victory for writers in a month. In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court said freelance writers may control whether articles they sold for print in a regular newspaper or magazine are reproduced in electronic form."

really tell the meat of the story: for the written word, electronic editions aren't simple extentions of the rights already negotiated with writers. However, you need to keep in mind that the author's (or their estates in a couple of examples in this case) made deals with RosettaBooks -- it's not that RosettaBooks just decided, "Oh, let's publish a Kurt Vonnegut book today."
posted by bclark at 9:52 AM on July 13, 2001

Electornic rights are now negotiated as part of author's contracts. It's just an additional thing an author can sell, like a movie deal. Its questionable if authors will even get much off it, but they at least have another negotiating point.
posted by brucec at 10:29 AM on July 13, 2001

It's Random House that wanted to publish someone else's copyrighted works: specifically, the authors owned the copyrights, and had sold Random House the book rights. The question was simple--did this cover "electronic books"? And Random House was playing both sides of this bet: they've also been buying separate rights to, and publishing, electronic versions of books that were published on paper by other publishers.

Among other things, the court decision quotes the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary's definition of "book".
posted by rosvicl at 11:18 AM on July 13, 2001

Yeah, this is a big deal and points to a major distinction between writers (generally) and musicians - tradition has been that writers have always sold limited rights only to their works. Random House doesn't own copyrights, they license them with specific limits. A record company, by contrast, usually purchases the copyright itself.

Thus, a writer is free to sell her or his work in a format not already licensed by a publisher, while musicians do not - they don't own the work they made.

Of course this glosses over several issues, most notably being that all but the biggest authors are probably, like freelance writers, bullied upon threat of never writing again for X publication into signing a contract to license the copyright in many formats, not just to publish books. Record contracts are a publisher's fantasy, and they've been actively working towards an analogous structure to their contracts. Doubtless media concentration has played a role in that development.
posted by mikel at 5:39 PM on July 13, 2001

*sigh* Post in haste, repent when you get home after a long day. What was meant to be a brief, happy post about the rights of authors versus publishers (much more clearly outlined by all those who have contributed so far) went terribly, terribly wrong. I appreciate the polite feedback and the link to the relevant decision.

Re musicians and copyright law: mikel just said that "musicians don't own the work they made". I always thought the contracts were set to allow their copyrights to revert to them after X years. (And didn't recording industry lobbyists almost succeed in getting an amendment to Amrican copyright law passed that would have defined musicians' creative output as work for hire? This would mean that upon creation, copyright would belong -- and always would belong -- to the record company.
posted by maudlin at 6:24 PM on July 13, 2001

Actually as far as I understand copyright law, that's normal when signing over copyright to someone. Copyrights have to be renewed, and the lifespan is dependent on who owns the copyright. If it's the original creator it's a span of about fifty years, and rather easy to renew and even hand off to family. If it is some third party that bought up the rights, it's around 15 to 20 years and more difficult to renew.

And of course the song probably has such a short stint at being popular it's not worth renewing copyright, and the original artist can snatch it up before it hits public domain.
posted by witchycal at 9:01 PM on July 13, 2001

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