April 23 is World Book and Copyright Day, an annual event organized by UNESCO to promote reading, publishing, and copyright around the world. In that spirit, we’ve compiled this list of resources on the topic of accessibility.
Earlier this month, the WIPO Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) held its 38th Session in Geneva. (Although we didn’t attend this session, Authors Alliance has traveled to previous sessions of the SCCR to advocate for reasonable limitations and exceptions to copyright for educational and research purposes.)
In addition to co-authoring the WIPO/SCCR report, Professor Reid also has a new article on Internet Architecture and Disability (forthcoming in the Indiana Law Journal). As the abstract states, “[t]he prevailing doctrinal approach to Internet accessibility seeks to treat websites as metaphorical ‘places’ subject to Title III of the ADA, which requires places of public accommodations to be accessible to people with disabilities. While this place-centric approach to Title III has succeeded to a significant degree in making websites accessible over the last two decades, large swaths of the Internet—more broadly construed to include Internet technologies beyond websites—remain inaccessible to millions of people with a variety of disabilities.”
Also available in pre-print format is the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) Guide to Accessible Publishing (currently in draft for public pre-publication review). This major reference work is a newly updated and greatly expanded edition of the previous 2016 version and contains a comprehensive guide to creating accessible content, a glossary, and a series of “cheat sheets” that break down topics into user-friendly summaries. As the Introduction states, “Maybe someday we’ll be able to stop describing publications as ‘accessible,’ because it will be taken for granted. It’s hoped that this Guide helps us get there.”
Last but by no means least, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has released “Getting Started With the Marrakesh Treaty: A Guide for Librarians.” As we’ve written previously, the treaty creates a set of mandatory limitations and exceptions for the benefit of blind, visually impaired, and otherwise print disabled readers. It requires that contracting states enact copyright exceptions that allow books and other creative works to be made available in accessible formats, such as braille and audiobooks, and to allow for the import and export of such materials. Now that over 50 countries around the world (including the United States) have acceded to the Marrakesh Treaty, the IFLA guide—available in five languages—provides hands-on guidance on international copyright issues to libraries to facilitate availability of materials according to the requirements of the treaty.
In our Spotlight on Book Publication Contracts series, we are shining the light on the ways that authors can negotiate for publication contract terms that help them make and keep their books available in the ways they want. This series is based on the information, strategies, and success stories in our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Publication Contracts. Be sure to check out the online or print version of our guide for more details on these and other strategies to help you meet your creative and pragmatic goals.
Advances are payments for book deals that are credited against all or some part of your future earnings. An author’s advance is influenced by many factors, including the potential market size for the book, whether the author is a new or established writer, the book’s timeliness and competition, and a publisher’s calculation of risk and reward.
A perennial question for authors is “How big should my advance be?”. Unfortunately, there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules about the size of an advance. Sometimes, it makes sense to negotiate for the biggest advance possible. Because an advance is a credit against your royalties, if your publisher pays you a big advance, it has an incentive to market your book aggressively so that it sells enough copies to recoup this payment.
Success Story: An author interviewed for Authors Alliance’s guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts wanted his book to be affordable and to be widely distributed, and he knew marketing would be important. Not being familiar with the publishing business, he hired an agent. The author and his agent pushed for a large advance in exchange for a modest cut in his royalty percentages. This way, the publisher would have the biggest financial incentive to market his book, as it stood to make more money once the author recouped. Further, the author agreed to use half his advance to hire an independent publicist to promote his book. This made it easier for his publisher to agree to a large advance as this increased the likelihood that the author’s book would be financially successful.
On the other hand, it’s possible that you may not receive an advance at all. While advances are typical in trade publishing, they are uncommon for scholarly works published by university presses. And, in certain circumstances, you might not want to take an advance. For example, your publisher may offer you a higher royalty percentage if you don’t take an advance, which could result in you earning more money over the long term if your book is successful. Or, you might be able to use a low (or no) advance as a bargaining chip to get better terms in another part of the contract.
Royalties are the amount of money that authors get from the sales of their books, usually expressed as a percentage. There are three main types of royalties:
royalties based on the book’s published price (also called the “list price,” the “cover price,” or the “manufacturer’s suggested retail price”);
royalties based on the publisher’s net income from sales of the book (also called “price received” or “sales proceeds”); and
royalties based on the publisher’s net profit.
To calculate your royalties under any of these systems, you’ll need to know both the percentage you will be receiving and the price from which that percentage is taken. It is very important to understand your royalty structure because it can make a huge difference in your future bank statements. For a detailed explanation of each royalty type, see pages 198-205 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
Success Story: Sergio Troncoso, an author of short stories, essays, and novels, as well as a savvy negotiator, pushed for his royalties to be a percentage of the list price, reasoning that this would likely be the more lucrative option. His publisher was initially resistant, but after a few rounds of back and forth, Sergio’s patience and perseverance paid off. His publisher agreed to a compromise: Rather than getting the published price (list) royalty he had asked for, he would receive a higher percentage of the net profit royalty than was originally offered.
For creators who want their works to be widely shared and enjoyed, terminating transfers of copyright are a powerful option for getting works back out in front of audiences. Authors Alliance has long been a proponent of giving authors statutory rights to terminate transfers of copyright (often called “reversionary” or “termination of transfer” laws). Among other benefits, these rights give creators the ability to give new life to works that have outlived their commercial lives but are nonetheless historically and culturally valuable.
A new study of reversion laws by Joshua Yuvaraj and Rebecca Giblin found that 56% of the 193 countries examined have author-protective laws that allow authors to get their rights back from publishers if certain conditions are met. Yuvaraj and Giblin categorized the reversionary laws they identified based on their triggering circumstances: 1) a set period of time (from, for example, the date of the publication agreement or the author’s death), 2) a work’s out of print status, 3) the publisher’s active use of the work, and 4) other situations (such as if the publisher goes bankrupt).
Yuvaraj and Giblin will continue to examine these reversionary laws in more detail, but initially suggest that laws that allow authors to reclaim rights in the event that rights are not being exploited or if there are no/low sales of their works would help authors’ ongoing interests in their works while protecting publishers’ commercial interests. Read more about Yuvaraj and Giblin’s findings here.
Authors interested in learning more about reversionary laws around the world can explore the beta version of the Creative Commons Rights Back Resource. We encourage experts to contribute to the resource to help expand the database of country-specific laws.
Authors interested in learning more about terminating transfers under U.S. law can visit the Authors Alliance/Creative Commons Termination of Transfer tool at rightsback.org and the Authors Alliance Termination of Transfer resources page. If you are not eligible to exercise a statutory right to terminate a transfer of copyright, you may want to explore options for getting rights back by exercising contractual provisions or through negotiation.
Authors Alliance members and allies know that we are champions of the opportunities presented by the digital age to generate new audiences and new sources of income for authors by helping connect books with readers. When we weighed in with an amicus brief in the Google Books case, we supported the position of authors who wanted their books to be discoverable through full-text searchable databases such as Google Book Search. We shared how Book Search helps readers to discover works, increasing the chance that books will find new audiences and markets as well as promoting the intellectual legacies of authors who wrote them.
New empirical research by Abhishek Nagaraj, Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley-Haas, and Imke Reimers, Assistant Professor of Economics at Northeastern, supports these arguments. Using data from Harvard libraries, the NPD (formerly Nielsen) BookScan database, and the Bowker BooksInPrint database, Nagaraj and Reimers investigated the effect of the Google Books project’s digitization of pre-1923 books from Harvard University’s libraries on demand for physical works. In Digitization and the Demand for Physical Works: Evidence from the Google Books Project, Nagaraj and Reimers present their findings, concluding:
Digitization hurt loans within Harvard but increased sales of physical editions by about 35%, especially for less popular works. Rather than cannibalizing demand, digitization might benefit copyright holders through increased discovery of less popular works.
Nagaraj and Reimers’ research contributes important empirical evidence to debates about the effect of digitization on the market for works. As the authors suggest, instead of serving as a market replacement, the availability of digitized copies may increase demand for print versions, especially for less popular and out-of-print works.
One of the beautiful things about fair
use is how it can soften the copyright act, which is in many ways
highly structured and rigid, to provide flexibility for new, innovative
To understand how, it’s worth appreciating the structure of the Copyright Act. If you look at the table of contents of Chapter 1 of the Act (“Subject Matter and Scope of Copyright”), you see the first several sections define basic terms such as copyrightable subject matter. Included in that first half of the chapter is Section 106, which defines the exclusive rights held by rights holders: the right to control copying, the creation of derivative works, public distribution, public performance, and display. In the bottom half of the Act, Sections 108 to 122 provide for a wide variety of limitations and exceptions to those owners’ exclusive rights. These exceptions are largely for the benefit of users and the public, including specific exceptions to help libraries, teachers, blind and print-disabled users, non-commercial broadcast TV stations, and so on.
One particularly innovative system developed to enhance access to works is “controlled digital lending” (“CDL”):
CDL enables a library
to circulate a digitized title in place of a physical one in a
controlled manner. Under this approach, a library may only loan
simultaneously the number of copies that it has legitimately acquired,
usually through purchase or donation….[I]t could only circulate the same
number of copies that it owned before digitization. Essentially, CDL
must maintain an “owned to loaned” ratio. Circulation in any format is
controlled so that only one user can use any given copy at a time, for a
limited time. Further, CDL systems generally employ appropriate
technical measures to prevent users from retaining a permanent copy or
distributing additional copies.
While the courts have yet to weigh in
directly on the CDL concept, we now have some guidance from a case in
the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Capitol Records, LLC v. ReDigi Inc. This case is about the development of an online
marketplace created by ReDigi, which facilitated the sale of “used” mp3
music files. Capitol Records sued ReDigi, alleging that ReDigi
infringed its exclusive rights to reproduction and distribution when it
attempted to use a particular transfer method to sell the used mp3s.
The Court of Appeals upheld a lower
court ruling that the doctrine of first sale is only an exception to the
public distribution right and, therefore, does not protect digital
lending because, in that process, new copies of a work are always made.
The court also rejected ReDigi’s fair use assertion. It found that the
use was commercial in nature, was considered non-transformative, and
replicated works exactly and precisely; simply put, they created mirror
image copies of existing digital files. Further, though the libraries
associations in their briefs
had raised the issue of a nexus of connection between fair use and
specific copyright exceptions, such as Section 109 and 108, as an
extension of Congressional policy that should influence the fair use
analysis, the court did not discuss that argument.
That the court ruled ReDigi, a
commercial enterprise, had interfered with the market for
iTunes-licensed mp3s and their effort was not a transformative fair use,
comes as no surprise to most lawyers and copyright scholars.
However, the decision, written by the
creator of the modern transformative fair use doctrine, Judge Pierre
Laval, contains several important lessons for CDL.
First, the case raises a significant
question as to whether CDL of digitized books may be “transformative” in
nature. In the decision, examining the first factor, Judge Leval
explains that a use can be transformative when it “utilizes technology
to achieve the transformative purpose of improving delivery of content
without unreasonably encroaching on the commercial entitlements of the
rights holder.” For physical books, especially those that are difficult
to obtain, this application of “transformative use” has a direct
correlation to the core application of CDL.
Further, this quote interprets another critical technology and fair use case from the U.S. Supreme Court, Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc., 464 U.S. 417 (1984), famously called the “Betamax case.” Since its decision in 1984, the Sony ruling helped establish and foster the creation of new and vital technology, from personal computers and iPods to sampling machines and TiVo. This Sony quote was most recently used in another Second Circuit case, Fox News Network, LLC v. TVEyes, where the same court laid out this particular reading of Sony. So, ReDigi here is drawing upon the precedent of two important transformative fair use cases to make its point. Under this transformative use definition, CDL should be determined to be transformative by the courts, especially if the commercial rights of the rights holder are not unreasonably encroached.
Therefore, while the court found
ReDigi’s use to not be transformative, the Second Circuit opened the
door for continued technological development, especially for
non-commercial transformative uses under the first factor, like CDL. In
fact, according to several scholars (Michelle Wu, Kevin Smith, Aaron Perzanowski), this creates a much stronger argument that CDL would be ruled a transformative fair use by a court.
The Second Circuit held that the
ReDigi system caused market harm under the fourth factor of the fair use
statute. Again, this is not a surprise to the copyright world. The
court found that the service provider had no actual control of the
objects being sold and that it “made reproductions of Plaintiffs’ works
for the purpose of resale in competition with the Plaintiffs’ market for
the sale of their sound recordings.”
What does this mean for CDL’s analysis
under the fourth factor? Here, again, based on the language of the
ReDigi decision, CDL looks pretty different. The ReDigi resales were
exact, bit-for-bit replicas of the original sold in direct competition
with “new” mp3s online through other marketplaces, such as iTunes. The
substitutionary effect was clear, especially since the mp3 format is the
operative market experiencing harm. For digitized copies of print books
used for CDL, the substitutionary effect is far less clear. With most
20th-century books—the books that we feel are the best candidates for
CDL—the market to date has been exclusively print. For those books, some
new evidence from the Google Books digitization project suggests
that digitization may in fact act as a complementary good, allowing
digital discovery to encourage new interest in long-neglected works.
CDL doesn’t compete with a recognized
market. When a library legally acquires an item, it has the right, under
the first sale doctrine, to continue to use that work unimpeded by any
further permission or fees of the copyright holder. CDL’s digitized copy
replaces the legitimately acquired copy, not an unpurchased copy in the
marketplace. To the extent there is a “market harm,” it’s one that is
already built into the transaction and built into copyright law: libraries are already legally permitted to circulate and loan their materials. The CDL “own-to-loan ratio” ensures that the market harm for the digital is the exact same as circulating the original item.
Again, the language of the ReDigi
court should be examined closely. The court distinguishes
substitutionary markets from those that are complementary and natural
extensions of the use inherent with purchasing the original: “to the
extent a reproduction was made solely for cloud storage of the user’s
music on ReDigi’s server, and not to facilitate resale, the reproduction
would likely be fair use just as the copying at issue in Sony was fair
use.” Reading this language through the lens of CDL, a modern
reproduction service, such as CDL, that further enhances the owner’s use
of materials that were purchased under first sale or owned under other
authorized means would also qualify as a fair use.
All in all, the ReDigi case most certainly does not settle the CDL issue; if anything, the specific language of the court emphasizes the potential for more non-commercial transformative uses like CDL.
David Hansen is the Associate University
Librarian for Research, Collections & Scholarly Communications at
Duke University Libraries. Before coming to Duke he was a Clinical
Assistant Professor and Faculty Research Librarian at UNC School of Law.
And before that, he was a fellow at UC Berkeley Law in its Digital
Library Copyright Project.
Kyle K. Courtney is Copyright Advisor and Program Manager at
Harvard Library’s Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC). Before
joining the OSC, Kyle managed the Faculty Research And Scholarly Support
Services department at Harvard Law School Library.
Today, the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the question of what the Copyright Act means when it says that a work must be registered prior to filing an infringement lawsuit, holding that the Register of Copyrights must act on the application for registration before a copyright owner can file an infringement action.
Under the Copyright Act, an infringement action cannot be brought until “registration of the copyright claim has been made” (or, alternatively, registration of the claim has been refused by the Copyright Office). As we wrote in an earlier post on this case, the essential question presented in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com LLC was whether a copyright owner may commence an infringement suit after delivering the proper deposit, application, and fee to the Copyright Office, but before the Register of Copyrights has acted on the application for registration.
In the Fourth Estate case, the Eleventh Circuit explained that in its view “[t]he Copyright Act defines registration as a process that requires action by both the copyright owner and the Copyright Office.” The Supreme Court affirmed this approach, concluding that “registration… has been made” not when an application for registration is filed, but when the Register has registered a copyright after examining a properly filed application.
In our Spotlight on Book Publication
Contracts series, we are shining the light on the ways that authors can
negotiate for publication contract terms that help them make and keep their
books available in the ways they want. This series is based on the information,
strategies, and success stories in our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Publication Contracts. Be
sure to check out the online or print version of our guide for more details on these and
other strategies to help you meet your creative and pragmatic goals.
In this week’s installment of our Spotlight
on Publication Contracts, we’re celebrating Fair Use Week by highlighting an important
aspect of your publication contract that defines whether your publisher expects
you to obtain permissions for any third-party content you use in your book, or
whether your contract explicitly allows you to rely on fair use.
It is common for book contracts to
include terms requiring authors to deliver documents to their publishers
showing that they have obtained all necessary third-party permissions: i.e.,
that the author is legally authorized to use any materials incorporated into
the book where the copyright is owned by third parties. Permissions may be
required to use someone else’s copyrighted work—such as artwork, illustrations,
or photographs. However, under certain circumstances, an author’s use of a
reasonable amount of another’s work to, for example, prove or illustrate the
author’s point may be fair use, which does not require third-party permission or
Often, permissions clauses do not
acknowledge the right of an author to rely on exceptions and limitations to copyright
like fair use. Instead, they may stipulate that an author “shall be responsible
for obtaining written permissions from the respective copyright owners to reproduce
materials from third-party copyrighted works.” Clauses like this do not explicitly
allow you to rely on fair use. If you plan to rely on fair use to use
third-party material in your book, you may want to ask for a clause like this:
If the Author uses any copyrighted text, tables, illustrations, or other materials in the Author’s Work, whether these are the Author’s own or those of another, and if this use does not meet the criteria specified in the fair use section of U.S. copyright law, the Author agrees to obtain and deliver to the Publisher proper and complete permissions to reprint such materials from the owners of the copyrights….
In our Spotlight on Book Publication Contracts series, we are shining the light on the ways that authors can negotiate for publication contract terms that help them make and keep their books available in the ways they want. This series is based on the information, strategies, and success stories in our guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts. Be sure to check out the online or print version of our guide for more details on these and other strategies to help you meet your creative and pragmatic goals.
Contracts typically include clauses that allocate the decision-making authority for important parts of the publishing process—from the timing of publication to the title of the work. Your publisher will likely approach these decisions with an eye towards maximizing profit, which may well align with your interests. But you may also have a stake in these decisions because they can influence how you and your work are perceived by potential readers. In this post, we cover ways you can have a say in your book’s cover design and the price of your book.
While a publisher’s choices about the cover design for your book will likely reflect its best judgment on what will help the book sell. But sometimes, you may have strong preferences and want to include in your contract a right of approval over any cover design decisions.
Success Story: When Authors Alliance member Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn negotiated the contract for her book Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate; Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, she encountered a provision that would allow her to pick a book cover out of three options. Because she knew that her book’s theme would be challenging to portray artistically, she crossed out this provision and added in language giving her final say over the book’s cover. Her publisher accepted this change. Later, when her publisher sent Janice three unappealing book covers to choose from, Janice proposed that a graphic designer she knew should design the cover instead. Her publisher initially balked, but when she pointed out that she had final approval rights her publisher relented and gave Janice the cover she wanted.
As an alternative, you could consider including a contract term giving you the right to be consulted as the cover design is contemplated. The publisher will still have the final say, but it will at least be obligated to consider your ideas in the process.
Pricing is usually central to your publisher’s marketing strategy. Your publisher will likely select a price for your book based on historical sales figures, prices of comparable books, cost of production, and other factors. But pricing is an important consideration for some authors. For example, some authors of academic books want to make their works available at a price that is affordable to students.
If it is important to you that your book is sold at a specific price, you can ask your publisher to share its anticipated production expenses and sales projections for your book so you can better understand its pricing strategy. If you understand what factors are driving your publisher’s pricing decision, you could negotiate for specific changes—such as agreeing to a lesser page count or using fewer illustrations—that will help keep the price low.
Success Story: When Pamela Samuelson negotiated the contract for her forthcoming book, making it available at an affordable price in both hardcover and paperback editions was one of her key concerns. Therefore, before negotiating she looked at the price of other books on similar subject matter issued by the publisher. Professor Samuelson singled out those books that had a price within her acceptable range and whose page count and format were comparable to hers, and then told her publisher she wanted her work to be priced like those books. To sweeten the deal, she offered to forgo an advance on royalties, which would reduce her publisher’s upfront costs. As a result, Samuelson was successful in getting her publisher to agree to price the book in the range that she wanted.
Even if you can’t get your publisher to agree to sell your book at a specific price, there are still some indirect strategies you could pursue to make your book more affordable. For example, you can ask your publisher to release your book only in paperback, make it available as an e-book, or simultaneously release your book in hardcover and paperback.
For more on how to ensure you can provide input on the finishing touches of your book, including the timing for publication, the formats which it will be made available, its title, and design and production decisions, see pages 144-158 of Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts.
We’re grateful to David Hansen, Director of Copyright & Scholarly Communications at Duke, for granting permission for us to repost the following update on the ACS v. ResearchGate lawsuit. This article originally appeared on the Scholarly Communications @ Duke blog.
Authors’ rights: the argument I’ve been waiting for
The most interesting ResearchGate filing isn’t its factual answer to the complaint, but rather the motion that ResearchGate made accompanying its answer. That motion, with the inconspicuous title of “Motion for Notice Under 17 U.S.C. § 501(b)” asks the court to open the door for something big: communicating about the litigation with the actual authors of the articles posted to ResearchGate. Imagine that!
ResearchGate begins its argument by pointing out the unusual nature of the case, and why it is so important to clearly sort out who owns rights (authors versus publishers) in the articles underlying the lawsuit:
A typical copyright infringement lawsuit about copyrighted material appearing online involves a content creator suing a website owner when an unauthorized third party has posted the creator’s work to the website without the creator’s permission. But here, [the publishers] are suing . . . ResearchGate for allowing scientists to share their own work. . . . Under Plaintiffs’ infringement theories, if ResearchGate is infringing Plaintiffs’ copyrights in the articles at issue here, so are those articles’ authors. Accordingly, a finding that the appearance of those articles on the ResearchGate site was infringing would necessarily mean that the people who conducted the research and wrote the articles did not have the right to share them.
The motion goes on to argue that many authors of these articles (almost all of which were co-authored) still hold a valid copyright interest in them that would allow those authors to legally post the articles to ResearchGate. Even assuming that the publishers obtained valid transfers of exclusive rights from the corresponding authors, ResearchGate argues that there is no evidence that the publishers also obtained a valid transfer of exclusive rights from co-authors of the papers. Thus, those co-authors are free to make what uses they want with their papers, including posting to ResearchGate.
Given that these authors may hold rights, ResearchGate argues that § 501(b) of the Copyright Act allows (and may even require) the court to order notification of those authors as third parties who have a “claim or interest” in the copyrighted works at issue. Section 501(b) provides that the court:
may require written notice of the action with a copy of the complaint provided to “any person shown . . . to have or claim an interest in the copyright,” and
shall require that such notice be served upon any person whose “interest is likely to be affected by a decision in the case,”
In addition to notification, the statute also provides for a way to actually bring third-parties into the lawsuit. It says that the court “may require the joinder, andshall permit the intervention of any person having or claiming an interest in the copyright” (emphasis mine).
ResearchGate is, for now, just asking the court to order the plaintiffs to notify other potential copyright owners about the lawsuit. Specifically, ResearchGate is asking the court to “order Plaintiff’s “to serve ‘written notice of the action with a copy of the complaint upon’ each co-author of each journal article at issue in the lawsuit who is not a corresponding author. . . .” I don’t know exactly how many authors that is (as I’ve said previously, there are over 3,000 articles), but it’s probably a lot.
Procedure, procedure, procedure
You may think I’m getting all worked up over a little bit of civil procedure. Maybe. But I think it is important because over and over again we’ve seen large-scale copyright infringement suits fought between the large organizations (e.g., Authors Guild v. Google, Authors Guild v. HathiTrust, Elsevier v. SciHub, Cambridge University Press v. Becker (Ga. State)) without much input at all from the actual authors of the works that form the basis of those lawsuits. When those authors have been allowed to have a say, such as in the Google Books class action certification process, their input has meaningfully altered the outcome.
For the ResearchGate litigation, it seems like a good start to at least require the Plaintiffs to notify authors that their work is being used as the basis for a copyright infringement lawsuit. I would hope, once authors are notified, that the court would also allow those same authors to intervene, as the statute allows, to have their own say in how their works are shared with the world.
James J. O’Donnell is the University Librarian at Arizona State University Libraries and has published widely on the history and culture of the late antique Mediterranean world. He successfully reverted rights to his 1992 edition of Augustine’s Confessions and made the book available in an open access digital version. Continued interest in the online book led to a subsequent reprint and later an additional paperback print run. Professor O’Donnell shared his rights reversion experience with us in the following Q&A.
Authors Alliance: How did you first learn of rights reversion?
James O’Donnell: In the course of becoming involved in digital publishing in 1990 and after (and founding the oldest open access online journal in the humanities, Bryn Mawr Classical Review), I had been around conversations about rights and about signing away as little as you need to [in a contract]. The book in question, Augustine: Confessions (Oxford University Press 1992, 3 volumes) was in my mind at the time, so I familiarized myself [with rights reversion].
My book was expensive and specialized, with a first print run of 1,000 copies and a provision that I would get royalties if it sold more than 600 copies. The book sold for $300, or about $550 in 2018 dollars. I figured this meant that OUP expected to sell 600 copies, or a few more. In fact it had a reprinting of 250 copies and sold out all of those. In 1995, my editor at Oxford told me with regret that she had been unsuccessful in getting a paperback edition, so the book was going out of print. I was remarkably cheerful about this prospect [because it made the book eligible for reversion].
AuAll: What motivated you to request your rights back?
JJO: I had been speaking of digital “postprints” for some time and had in fact posted an earlier book of mine from 1979 (long out of print) in that way. The Oxford volumes of Augustine’s Confessions were meant to be of high value for scholarly users, from student to researcher, and I was well aware that use was naturally limited to library copies, often non-circulating. I wanted better.
AuAll: Were you eligible to exercise a clause in your contract granting reversion rights?
JJO: Yes, I wrote a simple letter to Oxford University Press. There was a clear clause in the contract.
AuAll: How has the reversion helped you? What have you been able to do with your book since reversion?
JJO: First, I worked with a consortium of scholars doing Internet publishing in classics to create a digital online version of my edition of Augustine’s Confessions, now hosted at the Stoa Consortium and at Georgetown University (my former institution) on mirror sites. This resource has been available for about twenty years and is regularly praised as a teaching and research tool of considerable value.
Then, in about 2000, OUP decided to have another publisher, Sandpiper Books, do limited run reprints (not yet print-on-demand) of some of their “greatest hits” of scholarly publishing in classics, and chose to include Confessions in the series. When they told me they intended to do this, I reminded them that the rights were now mine, and we proceeded to agree on terms for licensing this specific use for a modest stipend.
Around 2012, OUP decided that the book indeed had legs and made it available in paperback. It has been in print in that format since 2013 for $179, or about one-third the original hardcover price. It was surely the case that the digital presence with open access on the web kept my book in mind and created the market for those who decided they needed a print copy. It is highly unlikely that the book would have had better sales without the e-version (and quite likely that it would not have done as well).
AuAll: What advice do you have for other authors who might want to pursue a reversion of rights?
JJO: Authors should know what they want out of their books, other than the traditional thin stream of royalties that academic books receive. They should inform themselves about their rights, sign rights away carefully at the outset, and then keep an eye on just what outcome they are looking for. My sense is that with the ease of print-on-demand technology, many books may effectively never go “out of print,” requiring a different kind of strategy and vigilance for authors.
We couldn’t agree more! Authors should be informed about their rights, and have strategies in mind for using them wisely—not only at the time a book deal is signed, but in future years, as well. To that end, we recommend two of our educational resources to help authors understand what exactly rights reversion is, how reversion fits into a book publication contract, and how to successfully secure a reversion of rights.
If, like Professor O’Donnell, you have previously published books and wish to learn more about regaining your rights, visit our Rights Reversion resource page, where you’ll find our complete guide to Understanding Rights Reversion, letter templates for use in contacting your publisher, and a collection of reversion success stories from other authors who successfully regained their rights and made their works more widely available.
If you currently have a book in progress and have not yet placed it with a publisher, we also recommend visiting our Publication Contracts resource page, which features our new guide to Understanding and Negotiating Book Publication Contracts. Knowing about rights reversion and reversion clauses before you sign your publication contract can help to clarify the conditions for reversion and pave the way for a successful reversion of rights in the future.