Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Its a Rights Business With No Rights Management

Yesterday our good friend Mike Shatzkin wrote and interesting and insightful blog on rights, ‘A serious issue for big publishers’. The debate stirred much discussion as Mike stated what we all know – that publishes , ‘are largely in the dark about what rights they own.’

In the old physical world this wasn’t a massive problem but in today’s digital one it is.

The Google Book Settlement, whether it gets approved or stuck out, has raised the issue not just of orphans and reverted rights, but also the thousands of books covered by legacy contracts. One leading publisher, Evan Schnittman commented that , ‘we must find a way to open up those creepy, spider-filled vaults, filing rooms, and warehouses and dig through each and every contract to determine if we have reverted the rights to any title listed in the Google Settlement.’

Then there is the wording in the contract and if it can be applied to a digital rendition. It’s also about the other rights associated with the work; illustrations, photos, graphics and paid for works such as translations and even permissions granted within the work. Irrespective of the main work itself, can these other rights automatically move into a digital rendition under existing contracts?

It is not difficult to envisage that some may assert their ownership of titles without the due diligence and the scrutiny needed. Unless someone objects, some may believe we could find cases of further land grabbing. Over the last 80 years, many lists and publishers have changed hands and its fair to assume that a small minority of contracts may no longer exist. The settlement, implicitly, asks the Registry to reasonably police against spurious claims. Obviously the settlement will generate a number of counter claims, disputes and the new proposed Book Rights Registry will now try to sort these disputes out. Some will say that some disputes will be almost impossible to resolve.

Today the Bookseller, in it coverage of the UK PA’s Google meetings, ‘ Press for Google compensation, says PA’, reported that , Jessica Kingsley, from Jessica Kingsley Publishers, questioned why publishers were being asked to pay for the Book Rights Registry to police only one other company Google.

As we have said before publishing is a rights business and if you accept that, then surely we must manage and control all the associated rights including legacy contracts. The Rights Registry is a good move, but we would suggest only if it is independent of the Google settlement. However without the Google money, who will pay for it, manage it and if the settlement doesn’t happen, how we can stop future land grabs?

We hope that the judge throws out the settlement and even if this means some hard decisions, other threats and it takes a number of years before we get a solution, it is better than starting with a bad settlement and wondering how we get out of it, or trying to amend and adapt it after the event and deal with an omnivore.

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