Publishers, Authors Battle Over eBooks: Who Owns The Rights?

On Friday, Random House started up a battle with authors when CEO Markus Dohle sent out a letter to literary agents regarding the rights to backlist books published by Random House. When the contracts for many older books were signed, e-books didn't exist, so while the e-book format was not specifically named, electronic rights were. Dohle cited language in the agreements that Random House has "the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats." This claim relies on the logic that the rights to publication "in book form" or "in any and all editions" covers eBooks as well as print.

Authors have far and wide rejected Random House's terms, arguing that it is not in their best interest to distribute eBooks through the publisher because of too-low royalty rates and paltry publicity.

On Tuesday, the Authors Guild responded to Dohle's letter. "The misunderstandings reside entirely with Random House," they say, recalling the change of language in Random House's contracts made in 1994 which gave them exclusive eBook rights. The Authors Guild argues that:

Random House felt the need to change its contract, quite plainly, because its authors did not grant those rights to it under Random House's standard contracts prior to 1994.

Authors are beginning to respond to the battle by moving away from publishers for eBook distribution. The New York Times reported Saturday that the classic "Catch-22" is a recent example of the publisher-author war. Amanda Urban, the agent responsible for author Joseph Heller's estate, is in talks with Open Road Integrated Media to produce an eBook edition of the book independent of the original book publisher publisher, Simon & Schuster. Urban stated that her agency "believes the e-book rights reside with the author, not the print publisher."

On Monday, the New York Times reported that Stephen Covey, bestselling author of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", announced that he would grant Amazon the exclusive rights to his eBooks. This marks a move away from his publisher, Simon & Schuster, which joined publishers Hachette and HarperCollins recently in announcing a delay to the release of many eBook editions of new books. While Covey and his son, author Sean Covey, insisted that the move was not based on dissatisfaction with Simon & Schuster, Amazon representative Drew Herdener criticized the publisher's choice to delay eBook editions. "Simon & Schuster is backward-leaning," he said.

In the 1980s, agents began holding movie rights to books, cutting publisher profit potential for some books drastically, but at least if a movie got made and was successful, it was likely to boost sales of a book. Will eBooks have a similar impact?