Authors hit back at restrictive publisher's ebook policies

With the popularity of digital reading devices such as ebook readers and tablet PCs like the magical iPad, it’s no wonder that publishers are beginning to realise there’s a chance they can screw over the intellectual property rights of authors.

Tech Dirt last year reported on Random House’s efforts to keep all intellectual property for itself and digital, meaning it didn’t have to pass on profits to authors that it was supposed to be representing. It said it legally owned the intellectual property and was able to produce ebook flavours of texts and keep the dosh for itself.  

Literary agency publisher Andrew Wylie’s The Wylie Agency has now crawled out of the woodwork to say that it will offer exclusives to Amazon’s Kindle

Talking on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme, Lee Ellis reckons that publishers will be going all the way to the high courts to make sure that it can publish what it sees as its own intellectual property in digital. Author content is the “bread and butter” of the industry, of course, and digital tech like the iPad is a “disruptive technology” which is a threat to publishing houses as it takes away th eneed for authors to necessarily have a publisher.

“If the publisher isn’t receiving the rights for all of the channels, that will affect the bottom line,” said Lee Ellis, at Gilham Solicitors. “Dealing with intellectual property rights in contracts is relatively straight forward in terms of dealing with specific rights that are being handed to the publishers.”

“If it’s a matter of witholding rights to print the literary works in electronic media, there is not too much complexity about that. But at the same time publishers are used to the situation where they receive assignment of all the copyright within the literary work. Having received those rights, the author at law now longer owns that. The publisher is then free to do what it likes.”

Tech Dirt, which has been following the topic, today reports that agents have been trying to get around legal publishing battles by going ahead and offering their most popular books through the Kindle on their own. The estates of the author or the agents include works from Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Vladimir Nabokov, Hunter S Thompson and William Burroughs as well as plenty of others.

However these are all more than established names in the literary world. New contracts tend to include digital distribution so we can probably expect more legal battles to come.