Interesting new dispute brewing . . . and this on the heels of the CCIA report (see post of 1/30/2012) no less.
The CCIA report talks about the general health of the global entertainment industry. In a nutshell, it says that revenue generated from, and the production of, movies, books and music is far greater than prior – mostly entertainment-industry – reports. Put another way, the CCIA report suggests that the entertainment industry is sort of a hypochondriac, and its moans and groans really do not portend its imminent death.
Or so the report says. I’m a litigator, so naturally a skeptic. Of course, as many of you know, my background is on the creative side, so I’m also a big proponent of making something out of nothing – film, music, art . . . self-serving report.
In any event, let’s go with it now, because I only mention it to talk about ebooks.
Just a little background: ebook technology and the devices themselves have been around since at least the 1990s. It’s just that almost no one had them. They were like the man-purse: just didn’t catch on.
Of course now, they’re ubiquitous. The Nook, the Kindle; I suspect the iPad will serve in this same function by the time I’m finished writing this post.
I read the New York Times (and the LA Times) on my iPhone so it’s not much different.
Note: we also get the paper edition of the NY Times. It’s just that I’m not supposed to touch it until Andrea’s through with it. So reading it on line allows me to read it when I like, even if she hasn’t finished with it.
Also, reading it on line allows me the opportunity to say something in response when Andrea reads me something aloud from the paper, such as:
Her: (Reading) It’s estimated that the Facebook IPO is valuing the company at $75 billion to $100 . . .
Me: (Nearly quoting from the same article, but tossing it off as if it were my own analysis) Really? Sounds like they’re cashing in on the fuel that powers the engine of Internet commerce: personal data. Why, the company has been busily collecting that data for seven years, compiling the information that its more than 800 million users freely share about themselves and their desires. Facebook’s value will be determined by whether it can leverage this commodity to attract advertisers.
Sometimes it works.
Anyway, back to our story. The CCIA report suggests that while the overall book industry has been relatively stable over many years, the digital books market has been experiencing explosive growth. Some publishers think ebooks will completely replace printed books. Certainly, according to the report, sales revenues for ebooks have now surpassed the $1 billion mark, and that’s expected to triple in coming years.
Now, if you’re a traditional publisher, and you have the right to publish a title in print or in the form of an ebook, perhaps this is all good news. After all, the cost of producing and selling an ebook is considerably less than that of a printed book.
If that’s all there were to this, we could all go on with things more important than reading this blog. But . . . what if the traditional publisher who released the book and built an audience doesn’t have the rights to also publish the work as an ebook
How could this be, you ask? Well, let’s say the work was published forty years ago, and neither the publisher nor the writer ever envisioned such things as an ebook, and thus did not include such technology in their publishing agreement. (Hey, if I were to have told you in 1971 that in 2012 you’d be using your camera as a telephone, and a radio and a compass and a map and . . . well, you get the idea. Who’d of thunk it?)
That’s the situation that gives rise to our lasted tale of woe and litigation.
Direct your attention to: HarperCollins Publishers LLC v. Open Road Integrated Media LLP, (case number 1:11-cv-09499) (SDNY).
HarperCollins is suing to stop Open Road from selling an e-book version of “Julie of the Wolves,” the classic 1972 children’s novel.
HarperCollins alleges that Open Media’s publishing of the ebook version of the book infringes HarperCollins’ copyright because it had a preexisting contract with the works author, Jean Craighead George, granting HarperCollins exclusive rights to publish the book “in book form” (at least in the U.S. and Canada).
So, is an ebook a book? HaperCollins thinks so.
What is a book, anyway? A quick Google defines book (at least the noun form of the word) as “A written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.” Well that wouldn’t include something on the Kindle, but is that definition too narrow?
That’s what the parties will argue over.
HarperCollins claims that its agreement with the author gives it the right to exploit the work “through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means now known or hereafter invented.” Under contract law, that would give them a good argument that the agreement was broad enough to include the technology we currently refer to as an ebook.
However, the case is being litigated in New York, and the Second Circuit has taken a fairly narrow view of similarly expansive language in other literary agreements where ebooks were at issue. But maybe the current, more widespread distribution of ebooks will lead to a different result in this case? It would seem that, as the technology works its way into our lives, the views of the jurists may change. We’ll see.
Certainly, if I were a publisher, I’d want to own the ebook rights to everything I had published in hard copy. Conversely, if I were the author of a successful work, I’d welcome the opportunity to renegotiate the ebook-rights. The issue should be of great importance to both camps (including the estates of the authors who entered into these types of agreements in the past), and a favorable ruling for HarperCollins is certain to trigger additional lawsuits, so stay tuned.
One final question: Who is going to retain electronic publishing rights in the future?
That’s easy: all literary agreements written on a go-forward basis are certain to close this loop hole. Publishers will want to make very clear that “new uses” of old works includes absolutely everything, and that the term “in book form” means something much more expansive than “written or printed work consisting of pages glued or sewn together along one side and bound in covers.”
After all, who knows what things will look like in 40 years? Maybe by then we’ll have telephone shoes.
Jonathan Pink is an intellectual property attorney specializing in copyright, trademark and commercial litigation. He is resident in the Los Angeles and Orange County offices of Bryan Cave, LLP. He can be reached at email@example.com.