Random House Fires Next Shot In Digital Book Wars

Publishers and authors are squaring off over who owns the digital rights to books on the lucrative "back list," works by well known authors that have a long shelf life. As digital books become more popular the resolution of this issue will be crucial for publishers because the back list is a major source of income.

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Random House has upped the ante in the fight over who owns what in the world of digital books. The publishing company insists it controls the digital rights to its backlist. Those are the books that continue to sell years after they are first released and produce a lucrative revenue stream. Writers or their families say the e-book rights belong to them, and some are looking around for more profitable deals with new publishers.

NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: With the electronic book market heating up, Random House CEO Markus Dohle decided to take the offensive. In a letter to literary agents, Dohle set out to describe how Random House could help writers navigate the digital publishing world. But in the letter, Dohle also said there had been some misunderstandings about who owned the digital rights for older titles on their backlist. Random House began including digital book rights in its contracts in 1994. But Dohle maintained that its older contracts also gave the company the right to publish books digitally.

Random House spokesman Stuart Applebaum.

Mr. STUART APPLEBAUM (Random House): Our contracts give us the right to publish a work, quote, "in book form," unquote, or in any and all editions, unquote. That contract line, which was - is intended to encompass all text-based versions of the work including what are now electronic publishing formats.

NEARY: The Random House letter came not long after the family of one of its long-time authors, William Styron, reached an agreement with a new publishing company to re-release a number of his novels as e-books. Similarly the best-selling author Steven Covey announced that he was going around his publisher, Simon and Shuster, to make a direct deal with Amazon for the electronic release of two of his books. Paul Aiken, the executive director of the Authors Guild, which represents writers, says such developments are making publishers nervous. But, he says, that doesn't justify what he called Random House's retroactive rights grab.

Mr. PAUL AIKEN (Executive Director, Authors Guild): A contract is a contract. Random House bargained for what it bargained for back in 1993 and earlier. You don't get to expand the rights just because there are economic difficulties in the industry.

NEARY: Aiken says the question of who owns digital rights has already been settled in the writer's favor in a court case that also involved Random House. The publisher maintains that case ended in a settlement and so no final ruling was issued. There may be more legal proceedings ahead before the question of digital rights is resolved.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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