Authors thrown to the wolves as Open Road loses backlist battle

Who owns the rights to your backlist? Authors will be poring over the fine print of contracts signed decades ago after a shock court ruling granted ebook rights to Harper Collins over an obscure line in a deal concluded 43 years ago.

A court in New York has ruled that Harper Collins owns the ebooks rights to a book it first published in 1973 on the terms of a contract signed in 1971.

Ebook backlist specialist publisher Open Road Media reached a deal with author Jean Craighead George to publish her children’s book Julie of the Wolves as an ebook.

The print book, which won the Newberry Medal for children’s fiction, has sold nearly four million copies.

Harper offered only 25% royalty

George had wanted to publish an ebook of Julie of the Wolves with Harper but the firm offered her only a 25% royalty while Open Road offers 50% payments.

Open Road went ahead and published the ebook in 2011 and indemnified George and her agent against financial liability. It has sold well, currently priced at around $10 and still in the top 25,000 paid sellers in the Kindle store. It’s a beloved book for many people and there are over 300 reviews on the Kindle site, with a four-star average.

George, who died in 2012, was a prolific author with over 100 books published. Many of her books focused on naturalist subjects and she wrote two more books in the Wolves series.

Open Road has also published several of George’s other titles as ebooks, although it looks as if Harper had allowed at least some of these books to go out of print, so the legal position there seems unclear.

The line in the sand

The line in the contract which swayed the judge and instilled fear in many authors refers to: “…Uses in storage and retrieval and information systems, and/or whether through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means now known or hereafter invented…

Whew, that really does look to be a catch-all clause, particularly back in the 1970s when photocopying was a new technology. In fact, the clause was probably originally intended to discourage photocopying of the book or parts of the books for school study groups but is perhaps loose enough to take on a wider meaning.