A huge publisher sues a small publisher over rights to an e-book

Just found this on Publisher’s Lunch. It’s really interesting: HarperCollins is claiming, via a 1971 contract with an author, that she can’t publish an e-book with another publisher. It’s interesting because of course in 1971 there were no e-books.
It’s pretty grabby of HarperCollins but I’ll admit a deep prejudice: HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch.

In a terse reply filed on in the Manhattan District Court Thursday via attorneys Boni & Zack, Open Road has answered HarperCollins’ claims that their ebook of Jean Craighead George’s JULIE OF THE WOLVES infringes Harper’s rights under copyright law. The essence of their reply is that “Open Road admits that the contract grants HarperCollins the right to publish Julie of the Wolves ‘in book form,’ but denies that such grant encompasses the right to publish the work as an e-book.” They deny that “HarperCollins ever intended to publish Julie of the Wolves as an e-book, and it is denied HarperCollins has any right to do so under the contract.” (In a little jab, Open Road also writes “it is denied that in 2011 (or at any time since the mid-1970s) HarperCollins spent any money promoting, or in any way promoted, Julie of the Wolves.”)

A spokesperson for Open Road writes, “HarperCollins’ claim is nothing but an attempt to seize rights that were never granted to it and to change the existing law with respect to eBook rights.”

As Woody Allen produces Marshall McLuhan for a brief rebuttal in “Annie Hall,” Open Road adds a statement from Jean Craighead George in which she says, I have asked to intervene in this action to protect my rights under copyright and under my original contract with HarperCollins. When I signed that contract in 1971, eBooks did not exist so I could not have granted those rights. I am with Open Road all the way.” Harper sued Open Road for infringement and did not sue George directly, telling us in December that “there is no need to name the author as we can obtain the relief we want by suing Open Road alone.” In the 2001 case between Rosetta Books and Random House, which was settled rather than litigated to a conclusion, in the original ruling denying a preliminary injunction blocking Rosetta’s ebooks, Judge Sidney Stein had found that, if ebook publication by a third party constituted a breach of authors’ non-compete clauses, “the remedy is a breach of contract action against the authors, not a copyright infringement action against Rosetta Books.”

Among the seven defenses cited by Open Road, they say Harper’s “claims are barred because it does not own the applicable copyright in Julie of the Wolves” but also argue that the case “may not be brought in this court because of the mandatory arbitration provision in the contract” between George and Harper (though as we noted, Harper is not directly suing George). Open Road notes that their publication was “authorized by a valid, written agreement with Ms. George, who retained e-book publication rights under the contract.” They also deny that George’s contract with Harper “contained a royalty keyed to the sale of Julie of the Wolves as an e-book.”

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