Monday, January 04, 2010

The Author Is Victim?

In the article which was published in the New York Times today, ‘There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen’,Jonathan Galassi, the President of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, expressed his views on the current Random House digital claim to rights of William Styron’s works. He argues that digital is just another edition and suggests that because Random House; copyedited the manuscript, choose the binding, picked the typeface, created the jacket image, wrote the blurb, developed marketing programme, publicised the book and managed the rights that they acquired to William Styron’s works, that this entitles them to assume the digital rights that they didn’t acquire.

He recognises that the author’s heirs hold the copyright to his work but he questions whether another company can issue e-book versions of Random House’s editions without its involvement. The premise is based on the view that the ebook is a mere digital edition of the physical one and a replication of it.

Aaron Miller of as kindly given us permission to quote his views,

'Perhaps I'm missing something here, but my impression of the editing process was that after it was over, the edited work still belongs to the author, and only the copyright belongs to the publisher. So when that copyright expires, it reverts to the author, who now has the copyright to the (edited) work, and can pass it along to his/her heirs (as was the intention of the original copyright laws). This means editing is transitory, and since marketing, by nature, is transitory (as markets are), what matters down the line is not who has done the work or sweated for sales, but the work itself, and the right to copy it as it stands.'

The point is that publishing is a rights business and as such it acquires, develops and sells the rights acquired. If it doesn’t own foreign rights or audio rights it can’t assume them. It doesn’t own those rights by default, so why should they assume that digital is any different? Why has Random House not negotiated the rights they didn’t acquire over the last couple of decades and waited for others to spot the obvious, whilst they sat on their hands? Some may call Galassi’s views arrogant and why many publishers are struggling to adjust to the digital age. Others will point to the music world and cry déjà vu.

We agree that a publisher does far more than print and sell a book but we disagree that this gives them rights they neither acquired nor paid for but have merely assumed.

The publisher will always make investments to added value to the work, that’s the job and how they profit from the contract. Everyone in the value chain adds value but none of them should ever assume rights they have not acquired.

Finally, Galassi was right about one thing ‘some things never change’.

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