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Is Territorial Copyright Defensible in the Age of E-books?

By Edward Nawotka


The instant and virtually frictionless digital distribution of e-books is posing a real challenge to the enforcement of territorial copyright. As discussed in our lead article today, English language e-books are in demand all over the globe. But that demand is likely to put US, UK and even Australian publishers in conflict over territorial copyright.

The answer for the publishers, as suggested by Larry Kirshbaum, is to shift to a model of purchasing world rights. In the meantime, Kirshbaum also suggests that technology is good enough that those who sell e-books, be they distributors or retailers, should be able to self-police and prevent unauthorized purchases. But, common sense says that people rarely refuse a sale.

The question remains: Is territorial copyright, particularly for English titles, defensible or even viable in the age of the e-book?

Let us know what you think in the comments below or via Twitter using hashtag #ppdiscuss.

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  1. Posted January 28, 2010 at 4:21 am | Permalink


    The authors have no current way to make a living from their books – which are bloody difficult to put together.

    The e-book question is seriously threatening writers’ livelihood, as their revenue channels are far fewer than music.

  2. Posted January 28, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    The concept of territorial copyrights is outdated in the globally connected world. It’s not so much a matter of whether it’s defensible, as it is just a matter of time.
    The laws as they stand were fine for our forefathers, and there isn’t really anything intrinsically wrong with them—just that they end up being absurd as technology changes the playing field.
    To cling to the copyright laws as they are—whether to protect or defend an imagined loss of author royalties, or for simple sentiment about the sanctity of law, or even for fears of a bizarre copyrightless anarchy—not only is revealed as Luddite, but shows a distinct lack of foresight.
    Content providers always cry “The Apocalypse is nigh” when changes in technology or society undermine their revenue-making structure. The people who controlled AM radio made all the same fuss over the evils of FM that the RIAA made over .mp3’s.
    The game IS changing. It is far better for us authors and intellectual content “providers” to find new and meaningful ways to make our products earn their keep. Love it or hate it, you can’t change the fact that if you don’t provide an easy, legitimate way for content to reach those who want it (whether that means borderless, available, copyable, portable, etc) people will either not bother with it or find an unauthorized way to access it.

  3. Posted January 28, 2010 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    My theory is that territorial copyrights actually may reduce revenue potential, not enhance it.

    Total costs of marketing and distribution are increased, for example, in order to sustain country-specific operations. You could argue that local marketing efforts should be able to trump centrally controlled marketing efforts but for many small-market or specialized content properties this may not be the case at all. Besides, it’s not just electronic books that easily cross borders, it’s people. Why shouldn’t they be able to buy and transport a book to and from different locations irrespective of their “home base”? I look at the DVD market regionalization for example and just have to shake my head at the lost revenue caused by highly mobile people holding back from purchasing DVD’s since they can’t use them where they are going. Making the same restrictions on e-books would fractionate the market even more.

    Dennis McDonald
    Alexandria Virginia USA
    Web: http://www.ddmcd.com
    Twitter: http://twitter.com/ddmcd

  4. Keith
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Andrew, I would have thought that existing territorial rights issues for e-books is actually reducing income-earning opportunities for authors. Surely, the wider the territorial rights the bigger the market, the greater the sales.

    Territorial rights are an invention for an old market, e-books are expanding the revenue opportunities for authors, and publishers and agents.

    It’s time for them to catch up.

  5. Posted January 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m only a lowly reader but I don’t think it matters much whether or not territorial copyright is intellectually (or even morally) defensible. Technology will make it a meaningless concept in the not too distant future. Just as now I circumvent it by buying 80% of my print books outside Australia (because it is cheaper for me to buy books in England and have them shipped here AND I can read a book at the same time as the rest of the world) there will be a legal way to circumvent territorial copyright on eBooks too. Publishers and authors and anyone else who has skin in the game had better come to grips with this reality.

    It shouldn’t be seen as all gloom and doom though – the new technology offers scope for new and different income-generating ideas, cheaper publishing costs, easier direct access to niche markets for new and/or mid-list authors. Every cloud has a silver lining so if I were in the industry I’d be looking for the opportunities instead of whining about the threats.

  6. Posted January 28, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    There’s quite a discussion going on among Australian book Twitterers at http://search.twitter.com/search?q=%23ppdiscuss

  7. Steffen
    Posted February 13, 2011 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    Markets are demand driven, markets are globalised. Publishers, wake up and see your customers’ needs and evolve with them.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] DISCUSS: Is territorial copyright defensible in the age of the e-book? […]

  2. By Back to school: Territorial rights on December 12, 2011 at 1:53 am

    […] Well, I’m not entirely clear what the big threat to local publishers is, nor even to the big ones. And if there is a problem, I think it could be worse for the big publishers who have come to rely on revenues streams by buying and selling territorial rights. Large publishers are already dominant – that’s been the case in New Zealand for years – but maybe the end of territorial rights breaks one of their strangleholds if it mean New Zealand publishers can go straight out to other markets. Learn from the French and Spanish publishers and retain world rights, as Edward Nawotka suggests. […]

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