How Authors Can Get Their Rights Back

The commercial lives of the overwhelming majority of books are remarkably short, particularly when you compare the commercial lives of books to the very long duration of copyright terms. When books are no longer making money for either the publisher or the author, or revenues have slowed to a trickle, authors who signed away their copyrights should give serious consideration to asking their publishers for a rights reversion. And publishers should be receptive to these requests, if for no other reason than it means they will no longer have to keep track of meager flows of royalties that might accumulate for books on the backlist.

Authors typically have a strong connection to their books, sometimes because they were labors of love and sometimes simply because of the hard labor it took to produce them. Even if the market for those books may have dried up, authors often believe that even their commercially inactive books contain important information, insights, and ideas that would be of interest and value to a wider audience if only the books were more widely available.

Authors may be deterred from seeking rights reversions for several reasons. They may, for instance, be so busy that they forget to ask or put off asking for rights reversions. They may not know how to be effective in accomplishing a reversion. They may believe they are ineligible for a reversion because they failed to negotiate a reversion clause in their contracts. Or the triggering event for a formal rights reversion may not yet have occurred.

But rights reversions may be easier to accomplish, even for those who don’t have rights reversion clauses, than is often recognized. What is needed is a straightforward guide to provide concrete advice to authors about seeking rights reversions. To fulfill this need, the Authors Alliance has just recently published “Understanding Rights Reversions: When, Why, & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available.” The guide is available at http://www.authorsalliance.org/2015/04/09/keeping-your-books-available/.

Authors Alliance, a nonprofit organization (of which I am a cofounder) that launched in mid-May of 2014, aims to represent the interests of authors whose primary interest is in sharing the knowledge in their works to promote the public good. The “Understanding Rights Reversion” guide is the first in a series of information resources that Authors Alliance plans to publish to help authors take advantage of the opportunities that the digital age presents to increase public access to their works.

“Understanding Rights Reversions” offers numerous hypotheticals to illustrate a variety of situations in which authors may want to seek rights reversions. It also tells stories of several authors who succeeded in getting some or all of their rights back so they could take charge of further dissemination of their works. Successful rights-reverting authors had several types of plans for the futures of their books.

Science fiction author Michael Copabianco, for instance, was able to revert rights in five of his books from his publisher, and was able to reach a deal with a new publisher to make some of them available.

Jeff Hecht, the author of five editions of a book about fiber optics, wanted to do a sixth edition of the book. His publisher did not want to put out a sixth edition. Hecht was able to negotiate for a partial rights reversion so that he could arrange for publication of the sixth edition with another publisher, but continue to receive royalties from his old publisher for further sales of the fifth edition.

Katie Hafner wanted her book, “A Romance on Two Legs,” to be available in paperback because she believed that readers of a certain age prefer this format to the e-book format that the publisher was providing. She asked her publisher for a rights reversion, but after explaining her reasons for wanting rights to the paperback version, the publisher became motivated to satisfy her request so that rights reversion became unnecessary.

The idea for creating a rights reversion guide grew out of the experience of Authors Alliance in helping three of its Advisory Board members satisfy their desires to make their books more available. Hafner was one. A second was Nobel Prize-winning author Harold Varmus who wanted to put a digital copy of his book, “The Art and Politics of Science,” online for free, although he was fine with his publisher continuing to sell print copies to those who were interested in having a physical instantiation. The third was Robert Darnton, Harvard’s prominent historian and University Librarian, who wanted two of his books from the 1960s to be available on an open access in a digital library such as HathiTrust.

“Understanding Rights Reversions” points out that authors need to do some homework about their books before asking for a rights reversion, such as finding and reading their publishing contracts and figuring out the record of sales. Authors also should have a plan for what they want to do if they achieve their rights reversion goals. This might include self-publishing, making a deal with a publisher for an enhanced e-book version, depositing the book in an open access repository, or finding a subscription service that reaches audiences of the sort the authors sought to target with their books.

The guide was prepared by Berkeley Law students Nicole Cabrera and Jordyn Ostroff, along with their supervising clinical attorney Brianna Schofield, working closely with Authors Alliance co-founders to prepare a guide that authors of all kinds of books could use to think through their strategies for seeking rights reversions and then making it happen.

The guide was based in large part on information obtained through extensive interviews with publishers, authors, and literary agents. Among the key bits of advice it offers to rights-reverting authors: Be reasonable; be flexible; and be persistent. And realize that publishers generally want to help authors achieve their goals for their books. Sometimes the best way to do that is by granting rights reversion requests.

Before the twenty-first century, there were relatively few options for authors to increase the availability of their books. Because of that, rights reversions were relatively rare, and books generally languished on publisher backlists. The advent of digital networked environments has, however, opened up a dizzying array of opportunities for authors to reach audiences, even if this does not happen through the conventional trade or university press outlets. “Understanding Rights Reversions” explains the when, how, and why of rights reversions, taking into account the mutuality of interests that can help authors and publishers craft agreements that will allow authors to make their books more available.

Rights reversion can be a win-win-win: for authors, for publishers, and for the audiences that are thirsty for the knowledge and insights that these books have to offer.

 

Pamela Samuelson is the Richard M. Sherman Distinguished Professor of Law and Information at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 1996, she has held a joint appointment at Berkeley Law School and UC Berkeley’s School of Information, and she is also a director of the internationally-renowned Berkeley Center for Law & Technology.

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