Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Whose Book is it Anyway?

It is often interesting to find several different angles of an issue being raised.

Yesterday we read in the Times the story about literary agents and that any literary agent now needs authors with form: preferably famous, prolific and also deceased within the past 70 years. Literary estates are now seen by some as ‘safe bets’. Often they have been neglected, they often have or it is relatively easy have their rights reverted and often areas such as foreign rights have not been fully exploited.

We referred to this area as often being the ‘grey area’ and somewhere between the ‘white’ that is public domain works, (pre 1920) and ‘black’ in copyright, in print and well recorded and with a living vested interest – the author. The digital world now throws up many opportunities to bring back previously successful works, or even those that failed first time, but ones that may now deserve a second chance.
However it is not just literary agents that have seen this opportunity. Publishers are increasingly dusting down their back list and discovering titles which are relatively cheap to bring back. Others are scouring the libraries and second hand shops for gems.

Some titles will be dusted down, given a new jacket, maybe a new title and even re-typeset and then brought back as front list. Others may be scanned and converted to print on demand or digital only formats. There have always been packagers and reprint houses, but today many have now joined their ranks. Also ‘classics’ which were once said to have had their day, are currently enjoying a new one and being extended into new genre.

Today we also read that Barnes & Noble plans to expand its rare book department into a larger one in Broadway and to a more prominent position within the store. They have long sold bargain books and printed packaged editions.

Today the Bookseller also reported that Google has signed up France's second largest library, the municipal library of Lyon as part of Google's Book Search Library project. It will give internet users full text access to public domain works, through Google Book Search. Lyon will join 29 other libraries such as, Oxford University, Harvard University, Stanford University and Princeton University in the project.

Some could be said to be merely scanning anything that has moved.

So the market is awakening to the vast volume of titles available and starting to create a comprehensive offer of all, to all. The ‘grey area’ is an obvious area for a potential land grab, as many titles have a poor if no rights ownership records and these ‘orphans’ can now be adopted relatively easily.

However, what does all this mean with respect to what is sold, to whom, in what form and by whom. Can estates and authors make sure that their copyright is not adopted without permissions? How do you establish what is public domain? Who owns the digital rights to old titles? How does Google intend to monetise its investment in the long run? Does print on demand mean ‘always in print’?

There are many more questions and many can be simply answered by those better qualified to answer than ourselves. However, we are now clearly entering into a new exciting ‘long tail’ phase, where anything ever published will be potentially available for all. But what controls are needed, do they exist today and who will and can it be policed?

No comments: