Random House has sent a letter to literary agents claiming the digital rights to books it published before the emergence of a thriving electronic-book marketplace.
In the letter, dated Dec. 11, Markus Dohle, CEO of the Bertelsmann AG publishing arm, writes that the “vast majority of our backlist contracts grant us the exclusive right to publish books in electronic formats.” Mr. Dohle writes that many of the older agreements “often give the exclusive right to publish ‘in book form’ or ‘in any and all editions.’ “
He argues that, much as the understanding of publishing rights has evolved to include various forms of hardcovers and paperbacks, so too does it now include digital rights, since “the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge to discover stories, ideas and information through the process of reading.”
“Someone would have to have a lot at stake to be willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to go up against Random House in court,” [Curtis] said. “I don’t know whether anybody will feel they want those rights so badly they are willing to spend like that to prosecute a claim right up to what could be the Supreme Court.”
One, if “the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge to discover stories, ideas and information through the process of reading,” meaning its the same thing, then it surely means that when I buy any book, or music, I can convert it, or get it converted, to any format that serves the same purpose—from paper to ebook to audio book, or from one music format to another without having to pay “format shifting” fees. One wonders how when it comes to publishers, “its all the same thing” but when it comes to consumers, you have to pay for each ear and eye.
Two, the way the law works in modern times, being right isn’t enough. Most people won’t go to court because the process is simply to expensive compared to the outcome—”someone would have to have a lot at stake to be willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to go up against Random House in court.” So, anyone who is against a market in law should consider the fact that something like that already exists while people continue to believe that injustice is rare commodity.
Jeff Tucker writes at the Mises blog-
[S]o if you wrote a book twenty years ago, you do not enjoy the legal right to blog so much as a chapter of your own work, much less reuse it or publish it with some other publisher. Yes, your own work, words of the infinitely reproducible sort are “owned” by a private monopoly even without contract. This is quite simply a violation of human rights, and authors have every reason to be outraged at the claim. This IP stuff gives capitalism a very bad name.
Add the millions of orphaned, or out-of-print works, and works whose copyright status is unclear, which means you risk getting sued if you try to clean them up and distribute them electronically, to this and you have one big IP mess. I recently came across a work which can only be described as monumental, spent a couple of hours going through the applicable US copyright laws and LOC records and came to a conclusion that its probably out of copyright in the US. But the same work won’t enter into the public domain in India till after I am dead. Given that the only ungated electronic version of the same is available on the servers of a legitimate (Indian) organization, and that accessing it from within India is technically illegal, while the publisher (an established UK house) publishing it somehow manages to do it by printing a notice of good faith, we have an absolutely wonderful situation. (Hell, even distributing Rand’s out-of-copyright (in the US) Anthem is technically illegal because of India’s life + 60 statute. One can only assume that ARI isn’t interesting in suing.)
This is the destruction of the Library of Alexandria redux. Strangely, if you don’t want to break any copyright laws, Afghanistan is the place to be. They (according to the Wikipedia) don’t have one.