By Emily Williams
The paper book is an object of beauty and simplicity. This neat package has allowed books to conceal for many years the increasingly complex tangle of copyrights they each comprise: rights to text and images, limitations by territory and term of contract, restrictions on the reader. Then came the digital transition, books stripped off their paper packages, and their knotty true nature was revealed. Readers can now discover books they’re not allowed to buy, buy books they’re not allowed to share. A publisher can go through the expense of digitizing a favorite how-to book or biography only to find it has no digital rights to the images inside. An e-book edition of a popular thriller might be sold with a blank gray cover because the rights to cover art and design were not cleared internationally.
The world of books is getting bigger and more complicated. The promise of digital is ultimate flexibility and portability, but unlike magazine or newspaper publishers, book publishers do not own their content outright. The transition of books to digital format is going slowly, not only because of the robust self-sufficiency of the codex form but because all of those rights must be untangled, book by book, contract by contract, going back to the beginning of standing copyright sometime early last century.
The digital transition has been slow, but it’s speeding up. E-books represent over 10% of the market in the US now, up to 35% of sales for front list bestsellers. New multimedia devices like smart phones and tablets are opening up a worldwide market for enhanced content and for richly illustrated books, including children’s stories and comics. The potential for book mash-ups with other media introduces a whole new set of rights questions, and technology players may not be familiar with the rules of the traditional publishing business.
It raises many questions. If you make a video enhancement of a scene in a novel, are you stepping on the film rights? How do you translate it? If your book app includes cool visual effects created by programmers, who controls the rights to that edition, and are they tied to the text or can they be sold separately? What do you do if a foreign tech company, rather than a publisher, wants to develop an app for your book for one particular language or territory? How do you sell translation rights for a book designed to build in interactive content contributed by readers? What kinds of rights are involved if a Web site wants to license content from all your books that take place in or have information about Rome?
Many of the opportunities from new technologies will come piecemeal in the form of experiments, but cumulatively they have the potential to build into new areas of profit — if rights holders are prepared to take advantage of them. This means having information about the rights you control in a form that is organized, accessible, and able to be communicated at any given moment. If responding to every new rights request involves a time-consuming process of digging through files and reading contracts, either opportunities will be lost because it is not worth the trouble of dealing with them, or any incremental profit the digital transactions bring in will be frittered away in the time it takes to formulate a response.
The complexity of this challenge, and its global nature, are what animate the Book Industry Study Group’s Rights Committee, an organization of which I am co-chair. We are working to create a standardized framework that can be used to describe any rights transaction, from a traditional language and territory book deal to serialized content used in educational programs for schools or a cookbook app for the iPhone enhanced with how-to videos and shopping lists. This framework will have a plain language form that will be publicly available for use as a reference both by companies in the traditional book sphere looking for guidance, and the digital payers like tech companies that are entering book publishing and need to understand the rights landscape. We are also developing a code-based version of the framework under the ONIX standard that can be used for system-to-system transactions.
Imagine a future where, rather than manually inputting a giant stack of paper royalty statements — with all the time, tedium, and risk of human error that entails — the information could instead be communicated directly to your system by your foreign co-agent or publishing partner. Sound too good to be true? It’s closer than you think: this is one of the pilots we’re working on, with input from standards body EDItEUR and the help of a few willing international partners. The idea is to address the biggest current headaches now and anticipate the future we can see from here, while remaining flexible enough to adapt to unforeseen challenges as they arise.
The rights business has always offered an opportunity to think broadly about each book’s potential. What publishing’s digital transition is making clear is how absolutely essential a good command of the underlying rights is to doing anything at all with a book.
Our carpe diem moment is here — the time has come to seize these digital tools and build a rights business for the new millennium.