Does “Storage and Retrieval” Mean E-Book Rights? Harper Lawsuit against Open Road Says Emphatically Yes

Towards the end of the twentieth century just about every book contract contained language granting the publisher computer storage and retrieval rights. Though the first people to employ the term probably did not envision e-books, the advent of digital technology sent publishing lawyers scurrying to their contracts to make sure they contained some variant of that term. For, in their opinion, the ownership of e-book rights stood firmly upon it. And when at the turn of the 21st century authors examined those same contracts, the existence of “Computer Storage and Retrieval” loomed like a snarling guard dog warning them to step no further across the owner’s line.

Though there have been some probes by authors, agents and startup e-book publishers of this and similarly ambiguous phrases in book contracts, none has ever been fully litigated. That may now change if a just-announced lawsuit is carried out to the max.

Over the Christmas holiday Publishers Lunch‘s Michael Cader broke the news that HarperCollins has sued Open Road, the independent e-book publisher founded by Jane Friedman (former CEO of HarperCollins incidentally), for infringing on Harper’s digital rights to a classic work of children’s literature, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. The author was not named in the suit, however.

Key to Harper’s position is the phrase in its contract with the author that “makes clear that the scope of HarperCollins’ publishing rights extends to exploitation of the work ‘through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means now known or hereafter invented’ — language that serves only to reinforce HarperCollins’ exclusive rights to publish the Work as an e-book.”

There have been some previous territorial quarrels over e-book rights based on vague contractual terminology such as the phrase “in book form” in some Random House contracts issued long before Kindle was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye. If there was no such thing as an e-book when the original volume was acquired, can a publisher claim that e-book was meant by “in book form?”

The following piece was posted on our blog when Random House, feeling threatened by newly created independent e-book publishers, decided to assert its rights in no uncertain terms.  Anyone interested in the Harper-Open Road dispute will benefit from this backgrounder.

Richard Curtis

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Random Serves Notice on Would-Be E-Interlopers
Like a wolf marking its territory against rivals, Random House served unequivocal notice today on what it perceives as potential e-poachers seeking a loophole in Random’s definition of “book”.

The warning was embedded in a letter from Random CEO Markus Dohle mailed or emailed to literary agents describing the company’s plans and initiatives in the digital world. Authors were also put on notice that they are “precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties that would compromise the rights for which Random House has bargained.”

“The vast majority of our backlist contracts,” writes Dohle, “grant us the exclusive right to publish books in electronic formats. At the same time, we are aware there have been some misunderstandings concerning ebook rights in older backlist titles. Our older older agreements often give the exclusive rights to publish ‘in book form’ or ‘in any and all editions’. Many of those contracts also include enhanced language that references other forms of copying or displaying the text that might be developed in the future or other more relevant language that more specifically reflects the already expansive scope of rights. Such grants are usually not limited to any specific format, and indeed the “form” of a book has evolved over the years to include variations of hardcover, paperback and other written word formats, all of which have understood to be included in the grant of book publishing rights. Indeed, ebook retailers market, sell and merchandise ebooks as an alternate book format, alongside the hardcover, trade paperback and mass market versions of a given title. Whether physical or digital, the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge to discovery stories, ideas and information through the process of reading. Accordingly, Random House considers contracts that grant the exclusive right to publish ‘in book form’ or ‘in any and all editions’ to include the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats. Our agreements also contain broad non-competition provisions, so that the author is precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties that would compromise the rights for which Random House has bargained.”

If Random’s position sounded familiar to some, it’s the same one that the company used in 2001 when it sued Rosetta, an e-book startup that offered digital editions of books by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William Styron and Robert B. Parker, having secured them directly from the authors. Random had published the books before there was such a thing as the Internet, but nevertheless considered a book to be a book no matter what form it took. Random’s request for an injunction was denied by the court, and Random then filed an appeal. It too was denied.

Random and Rosetta eventually settled, allowing Rosetta to continue publishing the books but leaving unresolved the issue of who controls e-rights to books where the language defining them is ambiguous.

By issuing its letter to agents today, Random House reasserted its position that, ambiguous or not, the publisher considers the language in its contracts to grant it ironclad control over e-rights. Anyone who believes otherwise is advised to take a good sniff before venturing over the perimeter of Random’s territory.

Richard Curtis

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2 Responses to Does “Storage and Retrieval” Mean E-Book Rights? Harper Lawsuit against Open Road Says Emphatically Yes

  1. Anon says:

    This goes even deeper on some levels, because many authors contributed to many books long before anyone ever thought e-books would be released. And now that backlisted books are being re-released by ALL publishers in digital format, and the authors are not being compensated, a lot of people are getting pissed off. If you notice, small publishers who tried to screw the authors over, are not receiving many calls for submission anymore. They are begging for writers. They only have themselves to blame.

  2. The problem with any claim that the grant of a license to sell a work “in book form” encompasses the grant of a license to “sell” the work in ebook form is that ebooks aren’t “sold”.

    The end user license for Kindle Editions and most (if nor all) other major ebooks makes clear that it is not a sale of the work but a limited license grant, and does not include essential elements of a “sale” such as first-sale rights of re-sale.

    The clear distinction made in the license terms between the *sale* of a work in book form and the limited *license* (not a sale) of certain rights to an ebook provides a clear basis for distinguishing ebooks — unless they are licensed on terms clearly constituting a “sale”, which they almost never are — from any contract provisions relating to “sale” of the work.

    This has implications both for the scope of the grant and, where ebooks are included in the grant, the applicable royalty: Since an ebook license is not a sale, the applicable royalty percentage is the (typically much higher) percentage provided by the contract for licenses of (subsidiary) rights, not the (lower) percentage applicable to any sort of “sale”.

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