Sunday, December 13, 2009

Random House Strikes First

Random House has taken the aggressive approach of informing literary agents that the publishing house is claiming "digital rights" to all books it published before the existence of such a thing as digital rights. Needless to say, this will be a somewhat controversial claim and literary agents and the authors they represent will almost certainly disagree with Random House's interpretation of all those old contracts.

(Photo: Markus Dohle, the man who signed the notification to literary agents)

From The Wall Street Journal:
In the letter, dated Dec. 11, Markus Dohle, CEO of the Bertelsmann AG publishing arm, writes that the "vast majority of our backlist contracts grant us the exclusive right to publish books in electronic formats." Mr. Dohle writes that many of the older agreements "often give the exclusive right to publish 'in book form' or 'in any and all editions.' "

He argues that, much as the understanding of publishing rights has evolved to include various forms of hardcovers and paperbacks, so too does it now include digital rights, since "the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge to discover stories, ideas and information through the process of reading."
Nat Sobel, a literary agent whose clients include James Ellroy and Richard Russo, both of whom are published by Random House's Alfred Knopf imprint, disagreed with Mr. Dohle's assertions.

Mr. Sobel said that prior to the September publication of Mr. Ellroy's novel "Blood's a Rover," the third volume in the Underworld USA trilogy, he received a letter from Random House asking for the release of electronic rights associated with the trilogy. He said he ignored the request because he has other plans for those rights.

"I don't accept Random House's position, and I don't think anybody else will either," Mr. Sobel said. "You are entitled to the rights stated in your contract. And contracts 20 years ago didn't cover electronic rights. And the courts have already agreed with this position."
Click on the Wall Street Journal link for all the details in what promises to be an interesting legal battle.


  1. I suspect that lawyers are going to make a whole lot of money before this is finally decided, John.