One of the most important and recent issues in the publishing of books is the question of who owns the rights to eBooks, or digital editions of a title that are sold by allowing readers to download a file from the Internet rather than printed on paper. Although newer contracts between authors and publishers will stipulate that the publisher owns the publishing rights to an eBook, contracts that cover titles on the publisher’s backlist may not mention anything about the rights to eBooks. Publishers have contended in legal arguments that they control the publishing rights to a title in any format. This argument has been countered by the argument that if that were so, they would not need to have contracts that specify who owns the publishing rights to braille and audio editions of a title.
Courts charged with settling legal disputes between authors and publishers over the ownership of the publishing rights to eBooks may refer to how disputes over subsidiary rights were settled. Subsidiary rights are the publishing rights to intellectual property derived from a book. Even before the Internet, advancing technology created opportunities to tell stories or present information in new ways. Scripts for films were adapted from novels. Later, television programs were based on movies that were derived from novels. Arguments arose as to how much of a film’s or television program’s story was derived from a novel and whether royalties were due to the author of the novel. The ease of copying excerpts from a digitalized book for use in other literary projects will most likely have implications for issues of permissions and fair use.
The advent of eBooks has also caused publishers, authors and literary agents to review standard or boilerplate royalty contracts. Just as authors usually receive a smaller percentage of the sales of paperback editions of a title than they do on hardback editions, most authors receive a smaller percentage on the sale of downloads of a title than they do on the hard copy versions of a title. Lower prices for paperbacks and digital editions usually mean a higher volume of sales. One key difference between the publishing of print and digital works is that many authors now receive their royalties for eBooks directly from online booksellers instead of publishers. In many such cases, the titles are self-published by the author. Few or no print copies of the title may exist.