A Book Is a Book Is E-Book

By Pike, George H. | Information Today, July 2001 | Go to article overview

A Book Is a Book Is E-Book


Pike, George H., Information Today


Copyright, contract, and technology are clashing in the digital age

A creative work such as a novel, photograph, or musical composition is considered legally copyrighted at the point of creation. That copyright, however, is often of little economic value until it can be commercially exploited. Although Web publication and other forms of self-publication may provide for economic exploitation, for most creators the services of the publishing industry are required.

Typically, the creator of the work seeks a publisher interested in marketing it and enters into a contractual arrangement that outlines the intentions and interests of both parties. Most contracts require the creator to assignor license the copyright to the publisher in return for the publisher's agreement to market the work and pay fees or royalties to the creator. This contract then becomes a significant part of the whole copyright picture as it outlines exactly which rights have been assigned to the publisher and the terms and conditions of the assignment.

It's inevitable that the contract, no matter how detailed, may not completely address all potential problems that might arise. Nuances of language and the passage of time all have an impact on how a contract is interpreted and applied. The rules of the new economy are also having a big impact on contract interpretation that has lead to some highly publicized disagreements.

Random House Lawsuit

One such disagreement, which may have a significant effect on the growing e-book industry, is the recently filed lawsuit between Random House, Inc. and Rosetta-Books, LLC. RosettaBooks (http://www.rosettabooks.com), a Web-based publisher of e-books in a variety of popular formats, obtained e-book publication rights from a number of prominent authors, including Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, and Robert Parker. Random House (http://www.randomhouse.com), however, had previously published the authors' works as traditional print books under contracts that gave them the exclusive rights to publish them "in book form." Random House's lawsuit claims that these contracts, signed some. 20 to 40 years earlier, gave it the right to publish in whatever book form may exist (including e-books) and that RosettaBooks is infringing on those rights. RosettaBooks, by contrast, argues that e-books represent a clearly different publication format from traditional print books and that e-book publication rights are not covered by t he "in book form" language of the contract.

A copyright is generally considered to be a bundle of legal rights that accompany the physical creative product. Section 106 of the Copyright Act of 1976 lays these rights out as 1) the right to reproduce the work in copies, 2) the right to prepare derivative works, 3) the right to distribute to the public by sale, 4) the right to perform the work, and 5) the right to display the work. These rights are each seen as distinct "sticks" in the bundle of rights that make up a copyright, each of which can be assigned or retained in whole or in part, in the publication contract. For example, a motion picture based on a novel would be seen as a derivative work, therefore motion picture rights are considered a separate "stick." Audio editions of books may be considered part of the performance right and are generally seen as separate. In the Random House v. RosettaBooks case, the legal issue becomes whether the e-book is part of the right to reproduce the work in copies "in book form," or if it's part of one of the ot her rights in the bundle.

Changing Technologies

In resolving legal disputes, the law seeks to learn lessons from similar situations of the past and apply them to the present dispute. Given that e-books are a quite recent development, how will the courts be able to look to the past? They might accomplish this by examining how other technology changes have affected the publication of copyrighted works over the years. …

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